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92 B456s cop 1 

St. John 


92 B456s cop I 
St. John 

Tpngue of the prophets. 
4)3.95 52-23069 

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Public Library 

Kansas City, Mo. 



NOV 1 31999 

Books by Robert St. John 








The Life Story 

of Eliezer Ben Yehuda 









70 A# memory of the two women 
in the career of Eliezer Ben Yehuda: 


who gave her life for him and his dream,, and 


who lived for that dream until she saw "his" 
language spoken in the gathering places of 
the mighty and in the byways of ordinary 
Jews everywhere, 



Tongue of the Prophets 



gan its siege of Jerusalem in 1948, 1 went down Ben Yehuda Street 
to look at the still unrepaired buildings which had been wrecked by 
an explosion set off by British "irregulars* in the dying days of the 

At that time there was nothing ironical to me that dozens of in 
nocent Jews had been killed by this act of terrorism, for "Ben 
Yehuda" then was merely a name I had seen on street signs in 
Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, and in other Israeli communities. 

I was unaware, then, that these streets honored a man who had 
written and argued for almost half a century that Britain was the 
Jews best friend. I knew as little about Ben Yehuda, the man, as 
most Americans, including most American Jews. 

In Israel that year I saw Jews from sixty or seventy different 
oriental and occidental countries creating a nation; people with 
different customs and costumes, different religious attitudes and 
levels of culture, different languages and dialects. I kept asking my 
self what the one thing was that they had in common. Was it re 
ligion? No, because many were agnostics and freethinkers. Was it 
that they had all been victims of vicious anti-Semitism and had a 

Tongue of the Prophets 

common experience of persecution? No, because some had come 
from places like Australia, Canada, and the United States, where 
the worst experiences they had ever had were perhaps being denied 
membership in a restricted country club. Neither was it a common 
cultural or intellectual bond, for it would be difficult to find 
two individuals as dissimilar as a Reform New York Jew and a 

Before I left Israel I decided that, in addition to a burning desire 
for a land of their own, the great coagulating agent holding together 
these diverse elements was their common language. 

As I wandered around Israel during that cataclysmic summer I 
saw signs everywhere: 



I heard on the streets of the cities, in trenches along the frontiers, 
in air-force camps, and on Israeli ships at sea men and women of all 
ages speaking a soft, melodious language, but I had no idea that 
Hebrew had been revived, after a slumber of nearly two thousand 
years, largely through the efforts of one man. 

Then I went back to New York and at a cocktail party met a slim, 
vivacious woman, Mrs. Max Wittmann, who told me she was the 
daughter of Ben Yehuda. I blinked several times. Ben Yehuda was 
still a street to me. 

Several days later the daughter took me to a hospital on upper 
Fifth Avenue to see her mother, Hemda Ben Yehuda, who had re 
cently been flown over from Jerusalem, as she put it, "to have my 
hip nailed together." Hemda Ben Yehuda was nearly eighty years 
old and the operation had been a serious one, but she was propped 
up in bed scribbling words on a pad of paper. 

"My memoirs!" she explained, her bright eyes twinkling in a 
coquettish manner. 

I made many visits to that hospital. I learned much about the 
man after whom the streets had been named. I read the sketchy 
memoirs, which were being written in English, 

Years ago Hemda Ben Yehuda had written, in Hebrew, a biog 
raphy of her husband which had been published in Jerusalem. Mrs. 



Max Wittmann (the Shlomit or Dola of Tongue of the Prophets) 
translated that book into English for me, and the facts it contained 
are incorporated in the following pages. 

I also had access to Ben Yehuda s own writings, including a very 
short autobiography covering his early years. 

As the story of his life took form it seemed unique. Here was the 
only man in history, as far as I could discover, who almost single- 
handed had revived an ancient language and popularized it, in the 
face of intense opposition from the very people who were to benefit, 
many of them convinced that God would destroy this "infidel" for 
tampering with a holy tongue. 

After I had the family s version of the man I began to search for 
a more objective picture. I worked for nearly a year in the libraries 
in the United States and Europe. On two continents I talked with 
men who had known him, scholars who had worked with him. But 
although Ben Yehuda had had more enemies than friends during 
most of his life, it was difficult to get any "critical" viewpoint, so I 
employed a professional researcher, who was also a Hebrew scholar, 
to hunt out exclusively derogatory matter. She worked for weeks. 
Still I had nothing that cast doubt on his accomplishment. 

I talked with Jerusalem neighbors who spoke slightingly of the 
Ben Yehudas, but they offered no biographical material which 
changed the story. It was just that they did not like the hats that 
Hemda wore or the conduct of some of the children. 

Finally I got on the trail of a Jerusalem journalist who had been 
one of Ben Yehuda s chief latter-day critics. He agreed to send me a 
file of his own articles which would give me "the other side. 5 What 
I finally received were two eulogies which said, in effect, "I once 
disagreed with him, but ..." 

Ben Yehuda s critics are either literally dead or have been silenced 
by the ultimate success of his dual campaign, to help create a Jewish 
state in which Hebrew would be the generally accepted language. 

This is a story about a Jew written by a non- Jew for non-Jews as 
well as Jews to read; therefore it is not assumed the reader knows 
even the difference between a seder and a kibbutz. It might better 
have been written by a Hebrew scholar, but no Hebrew scholar had 
done it. Besides, it then would have been a book interesting only to 


Tongue of the Prophets 

other Hebrew scholars. The story is too pulsating with human 
struggle to be written exclusively for students of philology. 

It is the story of a man who made it possible for several million 
people to order groceries, drive cattle, make love, and curse out their 
neighbors in a language which until his day had been fit only for 
Talmudic argument and prayer. 

It is the story of a faithful fanatic who had two great love affairs, 
made enemies of bis best friends, went to prison for his beliefs, was 
always on the verge of death from tuberculosis, yet fathered eleven 
children, gathered the material for a sixteen-volume dictionary un 
like any other philological work ever conceived, authored plays, a 
geography, and two of the most urgent "appeals" ever addressed to 
his own people, and died while working on the word for "soul." 

The story will please few Jews, because during his lifetime Ben 
Yehuda made enemies in every camp. He was brutal in his criticisms. 
Being a fanatic, he never allowed even personal friendships to 
deviate him from the course he had charted. His life was one long 
running feud. Many times he was undoubtedly wrong in the stands 
he took, but I have nowhere in this book passed judgment on him or 
his views. The story is told as factually as possible. 

The conversations which sprinkle these pages are not from steno 
graphic recordings, but I believe they are in die spirit of the charac 
ters. Some few were actually written out by Ben Yehuda himself 
before he died. 

Once in a public lecture, attempting to explain the traditional 
spirit of Jewish freedom of thought, I said that if three Jews were in 
a room there would be three opinions on any subject that arose. 
Whereupon a Jewish heckler in the back of the hall shouted: 

"You are obviously a goy [non-Jew], Otherwise you would know 
that if there were three Jews in the room there would be four 
opinions on any subject I" 

In Hebrew there are sounds for which we have no letters or com 
binations of letters in the Roman alphabet. The result is that there 
are at least three or four ways of spelling many Hebrew words in 

In the library of the University of Geneva, in Switzerland, I found 
Eliesser Ben Yehuda s name spelled five different ways. 



The rule followed in these pages is that proper names are spelled 
the way the owners of the names spelled them when jthey wrote them 
in Roman characters, even though this results in the confusion of the 
same name often being spelled in several different ways. (Some men 
named Jacob spell it that way; some spell it "Yakov.") 

Otherwise, all Hebrew and Arabic words are spelled as they ap 
pear in the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, whose editors, in trans 
literating, have attempted to give the phonetic spelling of words for 
the benefit of readers not acquainted with Semitic languages. The 
Hebrew pronunciation used, although Ben Yehuda himself might 
disagree with it, is the pronunciation with which most American 
Jews are acquainted. 

Problems also arose on the matter of dates. Most Palestinian Jews 
under the Turks used the Hebraic calendar. When it became neces 
sary, under the British, to translate dates into the Roman calendar, 
many were not converted correctly. Some of the Ben Yehuda chil 
dren, for example, are not even sure today of the exact year of their 
birth by the Roman calendar. 

Gratitude is expressed to Mrs. Dola Ben Yehuda Wittmann for 
her translations and the supplying of factual material, and to Dr. 
Alexander Safran, once Grand Rabbi of six hundred thousand Jews 
in Rumania and now Grand Rabbi in Geneva, Switzerland, for his 
help on technical problems. 

It is too late to thank Hemda Ben Yehuda for her hospital-bed 
conferences and all her memory searching. After being flown back 
to Jerusalem from New York, she died in the summer of 1951. She 
lived long enough, however, to read in final manuscript form, and 
to approve, this story of her husband s life. She died happy in the 
knowledge that a definitive account of his struggle to revive a lan 
guage would soon be published. 

With these explanations and acknowledgments I give you the 
story of a man who had a dream. 

Robert St. John 
Geneva, Switzerland 
October i, 1951 


Thy Will Be Done 


gathered around two men engaged in an argument in a narrow 
street in the Jewish quarter of the small town of Luzhky, Lithuania, 
which then was part of the Russian Empire ruled over by Czar 
Alexander II. 

A newcomer pushed his way through the throng. 
"And why do they argue?" he asked. 

"He with the fur hat says it is colder in Minsk than in St. Peters 
burg. The one with the green cap says it is colder nowhere else in 
the world than in St. Petersburg. His grandfather told him. They 
have been at it for thirty minutes and we are all freezing. Oih yoi 
yoi ! If they do not settle it soon we shall all die of how cold it is in 

"Why don t they let Reb Perlman decide which one is right?** 
"Yes, yes! Reb Perlman! He knows everything!" 
"He can settle an argument quicker than anyone in Luzhky ! * 
So the crowd started for the street in which the learned man of 
Luzhky lived. Even before they reached the house they began shout 
ing his name. But when he came to the door there was a frown on his 
face and he held a finger to his lips. The crowd instantly grew silent. 

Thy Will Be Done 

"Feygeh, my wife, has just delivered a child. Our fourth, as you 
know. It is a frail child. We did not have money for a doctor. My 
Feygeh is ill. I beg of you, let someone else settle your arguments to 
day. Begone, my friends, and pray for our child." 

With Jewish respect for the mystery of birth, the men forgot their 
interest in comparative meteorology and dispersed. 

Leib Perlman closed the door and turned toward the bed on 
which his wife lay. She was tossing restlessly. He bent down on one 
knee to try to make out what she was saying. 

"Leybaleh, my husband, I hear voices !" 

"Yes, Feygaleh, it is the villagers in the street." 

"No! I hear the voice of the Evil One. You told me yourself, 
Leybaleh, that until the ceremony of the circumcision he will try to 
steal our little one from us. Promise you will stay close to us ! Guard 
us, Leybaleh! Pray for us! Protect our child from the Evil One !" 

The young husband reached down to stroke her hot forehead, 
then suddenly drew his hand back. He had almost forgotten the 
Orthodox law that for six weeks, until the woman who has borne a 
child goes to the temple for the purification ceremony known as the 
Mikueh, it is not permitted that she be touched by a man. So Leib 
Perlman drew back his hand and caressed her merely with his eyes 
and his voice. In a whisper as reassuring as the touch of his fingers 
on her forehead might have been he said: 

"Feygaleh, my dear one, while you were sleeping I cut up many 
small pieces of paper. On them I wrote words from the Great Book. 
I have hung the pieces of paper around the crib, in accordance with 
ancient custom. Now, my Feygaleh, close your eyes and sleep, for 
the Evil One will not be able to harm our child. Thus it is written !" 

The young mother gave a deep sigh, then smiled slightly. 

"I hear other voices now. I hear Rachel. Hers is a sweet voice. 
Rachel will protect us, won t she, Leybaleh?" 

It was quiet in the Perlman home now, except for the swishing 
sound the wind made as it blew through the bits of paper that 
festooned the crib suspended from the ceiling by ropes. 

Leib Perlman tiptoed to a chair by the window that looked out 
on the road. For the fourth time God had seen fit to bless him. God s 
will be done. Then he dozed off to sleep. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Leib Perlman was not a rabbi. He had been given the title of 
"Reb" by the townspeople according to a custom then prevalent 
among Jews in Russia of thus distinguishing a man wiser than the 
average. They also referred to him as Talmid Haham, "Learned 
Man." Those who knew him well put the diminutive ending on his 
name and affectionately called him Leybaleh, as did his wife. He 
was handsome and blond, with the soft eyes of an aesthete. 

Leib Perlman was one of tfi.e most impractical men the parents 
of Feygeh Wolfson could have picked to be her husband. It bothered 
Feygeh that for the first three years they had to be supported en 
tirely by money contributed by her family and his. But after the 
birth of her first child, Esther, and a son, Shalom David, she found 
a way to a degree of financial independence. It was a good way be 
cause it left Leybaleh free to pore over his books. She opened a 
miniature grocery store in a corner of the wooden shack which by 
then was housing two adults and two children. 

At first patronage came from townspeople who hoped that along 
with flour and wax candles they might also get a little free advice on 
ethical matters from the man of the family. But gradually they came 
to shop here because of the pleasing personality of Feygeh heraelf . 

So it was th#t gradually the womenfolk of Luzhky began to ask 
Feygeh for advice. If it were a deep philosophical problem the de 
cision must be made by Reb Perlman. But in intimate, personal 
matters Feygeh s word was taken. And so her small business pros 
pered, and her customers began adding an extra syllable to her 
name and she became known to everyone as Feygaleh: Little 
Feygeh; Feygeh the Sweet One. 

Existence was tolerable, although not very happy, for the average 
Jew in Russia in 1858, the year Eliezer was born. 

Resignation was part of the creed of the majority of Jews. They 
took the f atalikic attitude that, as long as the Exile continued, they 
had no right to expect anything better than a life of poverty and 
&jualor; a life symbolized by an absence of even the beauty which 
niture can bestow on those denied material riches. This attitude was 
common in ghettos everywhere in the Diaspora, as the Jews still call 
those areas of the world through which they were scattered after 


Thy Will Be Done 

their forced flight from the Middle East nearly twenty centuries ago. 

But in 1858 a new spirit was abroad in Russia. The contagion of 
it found its way into many Jewish quarters. The young of Russia, 
especially those who had spent any time in the university, were be 
ginning to rebel against the tyranny of the Cossacks. 

Many Jewish parents became distressed over the activities of their 
young. They feared that their young would forget their Jewishness, 
neglect their religion, and become so obsessed with their fight for a 
free life that they would end up as victims of agnosticism or infidel- 

When their young brought home the rebellious ideas and pro 
gressive thoughts they had picked up at the university or in their 
secret meetings, the parents would wring their hands and cry to 
God to save them from listening to such blasphemy. 

Czar Alexander II was not the only one whose sleep was troubled 
by what was happening in Russia in 1858, the year Eliezer Perlman 
was born in a small cottage on a side street in the Jewish quarter of 

Czar Alexander Outwitted 


observed in the Perlman home. So it was that on one Passover eve 
the mother called two of her sons to her side and handed them a 
package of herring. 

"Take them to the river and wash them carefully so they will be 
kosher for our Passover tomorrow." 

Hayim Maeer, being several years the senior of Eliezer and much 
less reticent, grabbed the package and started on the run for the 
river. His younger brother trailed behind. 

An hour later Feygeh began to worry because they had not re 
turned. She was pacing the roadway when Eliezer appeared. His 
face was pale and his right hand trembled as he pushed the hair 
from his eyes. 

"Where is Hayim Maeer and where are the herring?" Feygeh de 

"Hayim Maeer is all right, my mother, but " 

"Where are the herring for Passover?" 

"They have gone to their homes where they belong," the boy 

"What nonsense do you talk!" 


Czar Alexander Outwitted 

"It was all my fault. We washed them so clean you would have 
been pleased with us. But as we started for home the package slipped 
from my hands and the fish fell into the river. The current was 
swift and took them away. You may beat me for it, but they went 
so fast I am sure they are more happy than we would be eating 

For an instant Feygeh hesitated between anger and amusement at 
her son s reasoning. If one of the others had done it she would not 
have been so lenient. But it was always difficult to be stern with Eli- 
ezer. She patted his head reassuringly and said: 

"Perhaps it is best. We shall let this be an atonement for our sins. 
But where is Hayim Maeer? Did he go down the river with the 

Eliezer pretended not to hear and rounded a corner out of sight. 

As Feygeh sighed and started back into the house she suddenly 
stopped and looked toward the river. 

"Something tells me it was Hayim Maeer who dropped the her 
ring into the water and sent Eliezer home to take the blame. And I 
let them get away with it! Dummkopf that I am!" 

The three-to-one ratio of boys to girls in the family caused Feygeh 
great concern. During the long hours that she was alone she brooded 
about it. Sometimes she would confide her fears to her more inti 
mate customers. 

"It is fine to have three such good sons/ 9 she would say, "but I 
can never forget what happened to Leib Beer, my brother. When he 
was only seven years old the Cossacks took him. It was the Czar s or 
der. As you know, that is the way they get soldiers for the army. So 
he disappeared and we never saw him again. Now I have three sons. 
How short a time will I have them before they, too, are taken for 
the army?" 

The intimate shop customers all agreed that the matter should be 
discussed with the Wise Man, her husband. So one night, after the 
children were asleep, Feygeh told Leybaleh of her worry. 

With his genius for solving problems, the husband found a solu 
tion. The rule in Russia in those days was that one son in each 
family was exempt. That meant Shalom David, the first-born, 
would never be conscripted. They need be concerned only about 

Tongue of the Prophets 

Hayim Maeer and Eliezer. But, Leib Perlman reminded his wife, 
the births of these two boys had never been duly recorded. 

"So," he said, "we need only find two families who are childless 
and who will co-operate with us. Then we give their names to our 
sons and register the births. So you see, Feygaleh, as with Shalom 
David, they, too, shall be exempt from service." 

Thus it was that Eliezer, although born a Perlman, acquired in 
his youth the surname Elyanof, while his older brother became, 
for purposes of evading military service, the son of the family 

It was obvious from. Eliezer s interest in books that he was going 
to be the intellectual of the family, so Feygeh and her husband, de 
spite their often impecunious condition, put his education in the 
hands of a good secondary teacher who one day confidentially told 
the mother: 

"He has a fine mind, but it needs cultivation, just as a garden 
with soil that is rich but unworked needs cultivation. You must sacri 
fice to make a good education possible for him." 

The advice worried Feygeh. There was no use talking to Leybaleh 
about it. He had no understanding of financial matters. But one 
night, sitting alone while her husband was at a gathering of Luzhky s 
intellectuals, she thought of her brother, David Wolfson. He was the 
one member of the family who had prospered. Besides, he was 
deeply religious, which was important, because Feygeh made no se 
cret of her hope that Eliezer would one day be a great rabbi. Also, 
Uncle David s estate was not far from Luzhky. 

So it was that Eliezer went to live with Feygeh s brother and be 
gan to study rabbinical law. 

Feygeh was still young when Leybaleh died after an illness. He 
left her not four children to care for, but five, because a few months 
after his death another boy was born. After several years she married 
again. But it was a mistake. She was never able to avoid compari 

"Leybaleh would not have done that." 

"Leybaleh was So much wiser!" 

So her second marriage ended in divorce. So did her third. From 
thea on she was vehement in expressing the opinion that only stupid 


Czar Alexander Outwitted 

women ever tried to replace a great love with a substitute. To those 
who came into her shop she would say: 

"Everything that any of my children ever make of themselves they 
will owe to Leybaleh. He was a learned and a great man. May his 
sweet soul rest in peace!" 


Thanks to Robinson Crusoe 


able, living in the great home of his uncle, enjoying food such as he 
had never known before, a room of his own, good clothes like those 
worn by gentlemen s sons, and the instruction of able teachers. 

"There is only one thing I demand of you," Uncle David had 
said; "that you have a serious attitude toward your education," 

The repetition of this admonition was unnecessary. Eliezer had a 
sincere interest in learning. His childhood was therefore devoid of 
frivolity both by choice and by compulsion. 

When he became thirteen life took a new turn. At thirteen, by 
Jewish custom, a boy celebrates his Bar Mitzvah, which, next to 
birth and death, is the most important event in his life, for on this 
occasion a Jewish boy becomes a man and henceforth has the duties, 
the privileges, and the responsibilities of manhood. 

Eliezer remembered his Bar Mitzvah for the rest of his life prin 
cipally because it was then that his uncle announced that his year of 
ease and comfort was over. 

"You go now to the Yeshiva, to the rabbinical college in the city 
of Polotzk. From now on all my assistance to you ends. In Polotzk 
you shall make your own way, just as the others do. I have ordered 


Thanks to Robinson Crusoe 

it thus because truth, learning, and wisdom are never acquired in 
comfort. It comes only with pain. You will sometimes go hungry. 
You will often be cold. You may suffer. But that is as it should be, 
for you will grow in intellectual stature and someday, if the great 
God wills it, you will become the fine rabbi that your mother hopes 
you to be." 

Eliezer was tired the night he arrived in Polotzk after an entire 
day on the road. His small bones ached. The blood was pounding in 
his head. There were sharp pains in his chest. By comparison with 
Lushky, Polotzk was a large place and frightened him. 

Soon after his arrival he met David, a fellow student who changed 
the course of his life. They were walking to classes one day when 
David stopped short and looked intently at Eliezer. 

"Shall I tell you a secret? I am leaving the great Yeshiva!" 

"Why? Have you decided not to become a rabbi?" 

"It s not that. It s really because of Rabbi Joseph Blucker. Wait 
until you meet him ! When he talks I could sit and listen all day and 
all night without sleep ! And he has a house so beautiful ! And books ! 
Eliezer, you have never seen so many books ! He knows everything in 
them ! If I ask him to let me bring you to see him, will you promise 
to go?" 

The next Friday evening, after attending prayers at their own 
school, the two boys went to the home of Rabbi Blucker. A servant 
ushered them into the library. Eliezer stood in the doorway, gaping. 
It was the largest room he had ever seen. 

But it was not the room itself which most attracted him. It was 
the figure of a man. He was about thirty-five years old, tall, fair, 
dressed in well-tailored clothes unlike any garments Eliezer had ever 
seen a rabbi wearing. He was walking quietly back and forth over 
the thick carpets. He was so intent on the book in his hand that he 
was unaware of his visitors. He was humming softly the words of a 
Jewish hymn: 

"The prophet Elijah will come to us with the Messiah, the son of 

Still ignoring his guests, the rabbi then began singing the Zmeerot. 
Now his voice filled the book-lined room. It also filled the heart of 
the boy from Luzhky, who, telling about it later, said: 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"Religion until then was something in books; something abstract; 
something without any human qualities to it. But during the half 
hour I stood in the doorway I felt the power of something above and 
beyond, as I had never felt it before. It was almost as if I were in 
the presence of the Almighty." 

Finally the private service ended and the rabbi turned toward the 
door. When he saw his visitors he greeted them warmly. But Eliezer 
was still in a trance. 

It was David who did the talking, explaining that he and Eliezer 
wanted to leave the larger school and study under him. 

"You must appear at ten o clock in the morning for an entrance 
examination/ 3 the rabbi was saying. "Now let s talk of other things. ^ 

Both boys passed the examination. In a short time Eliezer became 
one of the favorites of Rabbi Blucker, who appointed him tutor to a 
wealthy student. To justify this faith in him, Eliezer studied with, a 
burning intensity and also made a practice of attending early-morn 
ing services seven days a week. 

One Friday evening when Eliezer went to the rabbi s study, his 
host took from under the cushion of the chair in which he sat a 
strange small volume and handed it to the boy. 

"Tonight you and I shall read from this one. 5> 

It was a translation into Hebrew of the story of Robinson Crusoe. 

Eliezer was fascinated at the idea that the language of the Holy 
Books could be used to tell the tale of a shipwrecked sailor. He was 
excitedly reading aloud when there was a knock at the door. Quickly 
the rabbi grabbed Robinson Crusoe, put it back in its hiding place, 
thrust the Torah into the boy s hands, and only then went to the 

It was Rabbi Blucker, with his personal magnetism and his books, 
who was responsible for creating within this child from a small Lith 
uanian town an interest in culture and learning; in scholarship and 
general education. He did it by making the acquisition of knowledge 
exciting, as all great teachers do. 

But more important, from posterity s point of view, it was Rabbi 
Blucker who kindled a spark which grew into a scorching flame that 
only death would someday extinguish. This spark was a love of the 


Thanks to Robinson Crusoe 

Hebrew language, not only as^a vehicle for preserving the words of 
great Jewish religious leaders and the conveyance of them from gen 
eration to generation, but also as a secular language. 

It was Rabbi Joseph Blucker and Robinson Crusoe who started 
the boy then known as Eliezer Elyanof on a career which was to have 
a profound effect on the future history of the Lost People of Israel. 

Eliezer had been studying under Rabbi Blucker for almost a year 
when his uncle one day arrived in Polotzk. 

"Pack your clothes. You are leaving here," the uncle summarily 

There was no explanation until they were well along the road that 
led out of Polotzk. Then the uncle delivered a speech to the frail 
young man who sat in the carriage beside him. 

"I have been hearing tales about you. They cast you in the role of 
a young devil. There are reports you have been blaspheming the 
holy language, neglecting your studies, reading what they call phi 
losophy. It is good that I have heard these reports, for perhaps I 
have saved you in time from the evil ways into which you have 
fallen. From now on you will walk in the path of righteousness and 
confine your reading to the holy books." 

Eliezer was unhappy in the days that followed. His forced separa 
tion from the life and people he had grown to love in Polotzk was as 
painful as the sudden yanking of an arm from its socket. He now 
looked on his uncle as an enemy rather than as a benefactor. The 
only place he found serenity was in the local synagogue. There, after 
services, when the others had left, he would take from under his coat 
one of the Hebrew books he had smuggled out of Polotzk and stand 
in a comer reading by the light of the flickering candles. 

One early evening, leaning against a column in the synagogue, he 
was absorbed in his book when suddenly all the candles went out. 
In the semi-darkness he saw half a dozen figures in long white robes 
converging on ham. They made an unearthly noise. His knees trem 
bled. He dropped the book. The Angels of Destruction must have 
come to drag him away to their kingdom ! In panic he ran scream 
ing from the building. 

After he had left, the "Angels of Destruction * took off their white 

Tongue of the Prophets 

robes and removed the masks from their lanterns. David Wolfson 
turned to the others. 

"Thank you, my friends. You see, it was just as I told you. He 
comes into this holy place and profanes it. He hides here, and when 
he thinks he is alone he reads the evil books instead of studying the 

Another man turned his lantern on the base of the pillar and ex 

"Look ! He has left behind the evidence of his sin. There is the 
book he was reading!" 

They all bent over and peered at the volume on the floor. 

"Don t anyone touch it!" Wolfson commanded. "Let not a single 
man of us be contaminated, for it is an unclean thing!" 

As he spoke Wolfson took his cane and flicked the book in the di 
rection of the door. Finally, without touching it with his hands, he 
got it into the roadway. It landed in a mud puddle, open to the title 
page. One of the men turned his lantern on it and suddenly ex 

"David, you are not entirely correct. Observe ! It is written by a 
Bible student and defends the holiness of God!" 

Wolfson looked. For a moment he was silent. Finally he said: 

"It is still a profane book. Is it written by one of the great rabbis? 
Is it a book they study in the Yeshiva? No! The writer is some 
Dummkopf from western Europe. It is blasphemy for such a one to 
write of God. He defends God. God needs no defense. The book is 
poison, and my nephew is a victim of the devil !" 

That night Eliezer was sent to his room without supper. Hours 
later he was lying in bed reading, oblivious to how late it was, when 
he heard footsteps. He slipped the book under the mattress, snuffed 
out the candle, and pretended sleep. His unde opened the door with 
out knocking and turned his lantern on the boy, 

"So, you would like me to think I have disturbed your slumber! 
On top of all your other sins you lie in this manner to your uncle. 
But you are stupid as well as evil. You forget that by touching the 
tip of the candle I can feel that it is still warm. Get out of that bed 
I have provided for you in my kindness ! Now, where is the book you 
were reading?" 


Thanks to Robinson Crusoe 

Eliezer cringed in a corner of the room, saying nothing, while his 
acle conducted a search. Finally, from underneath the mattress, he 
tilled a slim volume, flashed his lantern on the cover, and read the 
[ebrew characters which spelled out the title: 



The halls of the manor house echoed with Wolf son s bellows as he 
erated the boy from Luzhky. Finally sentence was imposed. 

"Get into your clothes! Not for another hour will I allow my 
.ouse to be polluted by an infidel. If you go home to Feygeh, tell her 

wish no further dealings with the Perlmans. Here! Take your 
eftllin. You will need them ! You will need to pray the rest of your 
ife for eternal forgiveness !" 

Eliezer left his uncle s home with no baggage except the prayer 
levices known collectively as tefillin, a miniature wooden box 
haped like a derby hat which is worn on the front of the head and 
L similar boxlike object which is fastened by leather thongs to the 
eft arm during prayer. 

But Eliezer did not go home to Luzhky. He was afraid of his 
nother s anger. 

That night, as he plodded in the dark down the road to the 
aearby city of Glubokiah, the boy felt himself the victim of a gross 
injustice. What evil thing had he done? Rabbi Blucker read books 
written in Hebrew which were not about religion. He was not a bad 
man. Why should a beautiful language like Hebrew not be used to 
tell a story like Robinson Crusoe? 

It was still dark when Eliezer reached Glubokiah. He was tired, 
cold, hungry, and very sleepy. He knew no one in Glubokiah. But he 
remembered that by Jewish custom no synagogue is ever locked at 
night. So he began to tramp the streets in search of a synagogue. 

The next morning those people of Glubokiah who answered the 
call of the shammash to morning prayer found, on the first bench 
inside the door, a small dark figure dressed in the long frock coat 
which rabbinical students were required to wear, and with a long 
blond curl hanging down over each travel-stained cheek. 

The caretaker had to shake Eliezer by the shoulder before the boy 


Tongue of the Prophets 

could escape from the hold which a sleep of exhaustion had on him. 

Many of the people in the synagogue stared at Eliezer, but one 
man seemed to be looking with more than mere curiosity. He was 
exceedingly tall and straight, well dressed and very dignified-looking. 
His hair was gray, but his eyes were young. In them Eliezer thought 
he saw kindness. While Eliezer was taking off his tefillin, the tall fig 
ure approached. 

"Shalom and good morning, young man. You are a stranger 
amongst us. What brings you to Glubokiah?" 

Eliezer blurted out his entire story. Some instinct made him real 
ize he was speaking to sympathetic ears. When he finished, he looked 
up to see that the man was smiling. 

"I am Shlomoh Naftaly Hirtz Yonas and I would like to be a 
friend to you. I have a large family, and one more will only increase 
my pleasure. Will you accompany me home?" 

Shlomoh Yonas was the owner of a distillery situated in a large 
courtyard. The family home was in an adjacent garden. 

It might have been merely by chance that the host left his four 
teen-year-old guest in the library while he went to alert the rest of 
the family. If it were, it was a happy chance for Eliezer. This was a 
room such as he had never even dreamed about. There were cases 
and cases of books. There were pictures on the walls in frames, pots 
full of flowers, deep rugs, comfortable armchairs, and a sofa piled 
with embroidered pillows. Here there was none of the drabness of 
his own home in tuzhky, none of the austerity of Uncle Wolfson s 
manor house, and by comparison with Rabbi Blucker s study it was 
warm and livable, not just a room for study and prayer. 

The tired young man drank in the beauty with eager eyes, turning 
his head slowly from side to side. The palace of the Czars could not 
possibly be grander ! And he, Eliezer, who an hour ago had felt him 
self without a friend in the world, was actually a guest here. He 
walked over to one of the bookcases. 

When Shlomoh Yonas returned he found Eliezer s face clouded. 

"What troubles you now, my boy?" 

"These books, sir! The words are so strange. I cannot read them. 
They must be in languages I do not know. They are not in Yiddish 
or Hebrew either!" 


Thanks to Robinson Crusoe 

Shlomoh Yonas laughed heartily. 

"This case, Eliezer, is full of the works of the great philosophers, 
Mendelssohn, Spinoza, and many others; men with great thoughts 
and big ideas. The books are in German, French, Russian; lan 
guages which you will someday read and also speak. But now you 
must meet someone who is going to feed your body, just as these men 
will someday feed your mind. This is my wife, Rivkah." 

Eliezer decided that Mrs. Yonas was as kind as her husband. She 
smiled warmly at him and put her arm around his shoulder. 

"The books will wait, Eliezer, but the food will not. 3 

There were six children in the Yonas family, four girls, two boys. 
Eliezer was placed next to the oldest, Deborah, who was eighteen. 
Across from him sat Pola, who was a mere infant. 

They sat long around the table that morning as the mother served 
cup after cup of tea from a great brass samovar. Pola, the baby, 
never took her eyes from the face of the boy with the strange curb. 
Deborah was the one who asked him all the leading questions, en 
couraging him to tell of his life in Luzhky and Polotzk. 

"Father says you wish to learn French and German and Russian. 
Would you like me to be your teacher?" 

Eliezer blushed and nodded. 

"I think we should start at once, don t you? If the others wiE ex 
cuse us, let s go into the library now." 

After they had left, Shlomoh Yonas turned to his wife. 

"Did you hear, Rivkah, how intelligently he talks? Even little 
Pola was impressed!" 

"It was just his curls that fascinated her!" 


Two Curls + Two Girls 


are short. The days that first winter were much too short for 
all the studying Eliezer wished to do. Deborah often lighted the oil 
lamps and then returned to the boy s side to help him in his struggle 
with his new languages. 

The library was their study hall. Day after day they sat at the 
great table in the same two chairs placed close together. Deborah 
would pronounce the words aloud, explaining their meaning, drill 
ing her pupil in their use, correcting his enunciation. 

It went on all winter with few interruptions except the occasional 
visits from Pola, which were not really interruptions because the 
child rarely made a sound. She often spent as much as an hour sit 
ting on the floor, silently looking into Eliezer s face. The only time 
she caused a scene was the day Eliezer, at Deborah s suggestion, 
cut off the two curls which had marked him as a student at the 

That day Pola burst out crying. 

"Curls gone! Curls gone!" 

For days she treated Eliezer as a stranger* It was several weeks be 
fore she returned to the library. 


Two Curls + Two Girls 

When spring arrived Father Yonas found an excuse to get fresh 
air and exercise for his protege. Several afternoons each week he 
took the boy on a long walk through the woods, giving him lessons 
in natural history. On one such walk he said: 

"Deborah tells me you are making considerable progress with 
your French and German. That is good, but I hope, Eliezer, that 
you will never forget your Hebrew. It is a language of beauty. The 
tragedy is that Hebrew is like Latin. Today it is a language only for 
prayer and the preservation of our old Jewish literature. But we 
must keep Hebrew alive, always. It has a melody of its own, like 
some of the deep sounds of the forest which we have been hearing 
on these walks. So promise me, my boy, that you will repay what I 
am trying to do for you by always keeping Hebrew alive in your 
mind and your heart." 

Eliezer solemnly promised. 

For almost two years, with few interruptions, Deborah and Eliezer 
worked together. Finally the pupil was almost as proficient as his 
teacher, and Father Yonas decided it was time for Eliezer to make 
plans to enter the nearest Gymnasium, at Diinaburg. 

They all knew when the last day came that it was going to be diffi 
cult. Father Yonas kept insisting to his wife that it was not the end 
of anything; that the ties would never be broken. But Mother Yonas 
started crying even before breakfast was over that last day. 

"It s going to be like losing one of our own, Shlomoh! He has 
been such a sweet boy! I hate to think how lost Deborah will be 
without him. Yet it s little Pola who really worries me. Lately she has 
even been talking in her sleep about him. It will be an empty house 
after today. The two of them sitting there with their books! I shall 
miss that picture!" 

Eliezer behaved as if it were just another day of lessons. As im 
personally as if his teacher were a rabbi in the Yeshiva, he was recit 
ing to Deborah the words he had practiced in bed the night before. 
Suddenly the young woman beside him slammed the book shut with 
a bang. 

"Eliezer, do you realize does it mean nothing to you that this is 
the last day?" 

The boy smiled. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"Thanks to you, Deborah, I can say that it is the last day in five 
different languages." 

"There are things I wish you would say in any language!" 

"I guess you mean I should say how grateful I am to all of you. I 
say it now. I shall never stop saying it !" 

"But, Eliezer, isn t there anything anything personal you wish to 
say while we are alone this last time?" 

Eliezer blushed and looked away toward the window. 

"You know I am going to miss you, Deborah." 

"I am glad you finally said it. But miss 3 is a very poor word in any 
language for the feelings which I am going to have. My life ends, in 
a way, when you go off down the road. I love you, Eliezer. There, I 
have said it! And in your own strange way I think you love me. 
Promise me one thing. Promise you will always remember me !" 

In his embarrassment the boy reverted to the language he had first 
learned as a child. In Yiddish he said: 

"Yes, I promise!" 

"No, Eliezer, I would like to hear you say it in Hebrew, the sacred 
language, for it is a sacred oath we are taking. I shall say the words 
with you. And someday " 

She was interrupted by her mother bustling in, red of face and 
short of breath. 

"Come, come! Eliezer must have food before starting, and some 
one must settle the matter of the valise. Father and I do not agree. 
He keeps taking clothes out to make room for books and papers, 
while I keep taking out books and papers to make room for clothes. 
But before I forget, promise me, Eliezer, that you will do one small 
favor for me?" 

The boy looked at the woman who for two years had treated him 
in as motherly a manner as if she had actually given birth to him 

"I have made a promise to Father Yonas and just today I made a 
promise to Deborah, so it is only fair that I make one to you. I prom 
ise. ... But what is it that I must promise?" 

"It s your cough, Eliezer. If it gets worse you must see a doctor in 


Two Curls + Two Girls 

Just then Deborah, who had left the room, came back holding 
something behind her. 

"Eliezer, you must close your eyes and count ten. Do not be so 
embarrassed ! It will be quite painless." 

While he counted she put around his neck a white wool scarf she 
had been secretly knitting for him. 

"It is to keep you from coughing, but it is also to keep you remem 
bering the promise you made to me just now, Eliezer !" 


Growing Pains 


ish family, yet he had a brilliant mind. Soon after he entered the 
Gymnasium at Diinaburg he became a convert to Christianity. He 
made the move coldly and deliberately. Looking around, he decided 
that there were too many paths along which a Jew could never 
travel Some of his fellow Jews might criticize him. The ultra- 
religious ones might even spit on him. But most non-Jews would re 
spect him and no paths would be blocked. So David Wittinsky re 
mained a Jew in name only. 

Eliezer met him quite by chance. He was a friend of the son of 
the family in Diinaburg from which Eliezer rented a room. Wittin 
sky took the younger boy under his wing and coached him for the 
entrance examinations. When Eliezer passed with high marks, Wit 
tinsky said: 

"You owe me nothing. You have already repaid me by proving 
that my judgment is good." 

When the principal sent Eliezer a note announcing that he would 
receive a scholarship of twenty rubles per month, Wittinsky said: 

"You need me no longer. You are well launched. Only I hope you 
will not forget me." 


Growing Pains 

Eliezer made many friends in Diinaburg. The other Jewish stu 
dents decided that this frail newcomer would probably become one 
of their leaders, so they vied with each other to be gracious to him. 
Many who were "day students" invited him to their homes and Eli 
ezer accepted. It was of great economic advantage to be such a fre 
quent guest for dinner. Twenty rubles a month was little on which 
to try to exist and buy books. But Eliezer found most of the other 
Jewish students dull by comparison with Wittinsky. 

David Wittinsky was typical of his times. He was one of those 
young Russian intellectuals who in that period were aflame with the 
idea of freedom. 

"Our goal/ he once told Eliezer, "must be to play leading roles in 
the liberation of Russia from her masters." 

"Do you mean { we as Jews?" Eliezer asked. 

"Naturally not! We must forget we are Jews. What difference 
does religion make? We are all freethinkers here, and if you remain 
long you, too, will become a freethinker. 3 

Another time Wittinsky said: 

"It is quite proper that we should no longer be hemmed in by the 
customs of our religion. Those things are outdated. You must re 
nounce your religion, Eliezer, as I have done, in order to take part 
in the great movement beginning to sweep Russia!" 

At first Eliezer was stunned by Wittinsky s talk. But the ideal of 
freedom was one with which he instinctively agreed and so he was 
able to throw up few defenses against his friend s arguments. Yet for 
more than a year he refused to be rushed into a decision. 

"Think, Eliezer, of the great men you have read about who have 
changed the course of history. How many were bound by the 
shackles of an outdated religion? We must become free, as they were, 
if we are to help lead the world to new heights." 

Day after day, month after month, Wittinsky prodded him. Eli 
ezer listened and was impressed. 

"After you make the great decision, Eliezer, you must then be 
willing to suffer for your convictions. Some of us may be arrested, 
imprisoned, sent to Siberia, or even put to death. But strong men 
have no fears." 

Eliezer was wavering when an event occurred which finally, like 


Tongue of the Prophets 

a great ray of light thrown into a murky scene, illuminated the road 
down which he really wanted to travel. 

Russia went to war, among other things for the liberation of Bul 
garia. This gave the young Russian intellectuals a concrete focal 
point for their enthusiasms. Now they became ardent supporters of 
the czarist battle for freedom for those whom the Turks for so long a 
time had kept enslaved. But if the Bulgars could be liberated, why, 
Eliezer asked himself,, not also the Jews? Why could not Jews have 
their own land, their own language, their own way of life? How 
were Jews inferior to Bulgars? Is liberty something only for a race 
down in the Balkans? The Bulgars had suffered oppression for a few 
generations, but for nearly twenty centuries the Jews had been kept 
a dispersed and homeless people ! If freedom for the oppressed was 
so important to men like Wittinsky, why did they not show some 
concern for those who had been oppressed for so much longer than 
any others? 

Then Eliezer remembered his mother saying that the liberation of 
the Jews could come only with the arrival of the Messiah. But why? If 
the Bulgars could be liberated now, why must Jews wait indefinitely? 

All these questions were answered to Eliezer s own satisfaction by 
a clear strong voice which rang constantly in his ears. It drowned 
out the arguments of the Wittinskys. It put to rout the indecisions 
Eliezer himself had. He knew now which battle he wanted to fight. 
He would consecrate his life to the liberation of his own people and 
the establishment of Jews in the land of their forefathers. 

But he must have allies. And all his studying from now on must 
be directed toward a single end. He must learn about politics, about 
the customs of various lands through which the Jews had been dis* 
persed. He must fit himself for some profession by which he could 
earn a living. 

As the day of his graduation from the high school in Diinaburg 
drew near, the boy from Luzhky finally decided to continue his edu 
cation in Paris, because Paris was the center of the political and dip 
lomatic life of Europe. He also decided to take up the study of medi 
cine, a profession which would give him a certain social standing 
wherever he went and place him in contact with people in a position 
to help in the realization of his dream. 



Convert Mo. 1 

"Dear Deborah: 

"This is to inform you that I have arrived in the wonderful city 
of Paris. The first thing which astonished me was the discovery that 
everyone here can speak French better than I can. Even the coach 
men, the janitors, and the men who clean the streets. Somehow I 
had thought that, with your instruction and the work I did at Diina- 
burg, I was more perfect in the language than anyone except French 

"It is wonderful to be living in the great world center of wisdom 
and learning, where there is complete freedom of thought, of expres 
sion, of action. 

"My immediate object is to reach a certain niveau which will en 
able me to come into intimate contact with the great Jewish person 
alities of our time, in order to interest them in my plan for the re- 
establishment of the Jewish people on the soil of our ancestors. I 
am desirous of learning all that I am able about the history of our 
own people. I hope to find everything in the university called the 

"Tell your father and mother I think often of them and please 
bear my greetings to all, including little Pola, 



Tongue of the Prophets 

"Dear Deborah: 

"I have received your letter in which you ask me intimate ques 
tions about my life here. The matter of existence does not very much 
bother me. I need only a small room, which I have found, and a 
slice of bread and some sausage each day, which is enough. 

"I read as many newspapers as possible. From time to time I go 
to the lectures of Gambetta on the political situation in the world at 
large. I often attend sessions of the French Parliament. 

"It is now my great desire to meet important men and to talk to 
them about my idea and ascertain how they are going to react. Will 
they lend me their ears, or will they ridicule me? If they advise me 
to dismiss the whole matter and concentrate on my medical studies, 
I shall be bitterly disappointed. 

"In the Russian reading room at the library I have met a very 
cultured and famous journalist, a descendant of Polish nobility, who 
is the Paris correspondent for a liberal Russian newspaper, the Rus~ 
sian World. His name is Tshashnikov. He has been as kind to me as 
Wittinsky in Diinaburg. But there is one queer difference. Wittin- 
sky was a Jew, but was unsympathetic to all that I had in my mind. 
Tshashnikov is not a Jew, yet he has an understanding of the prob 
lem and the solution. He says that his own people, the Poles, have 
begun to be reconciled to their loss of liberty and he had thought 
until now the same was even more true of the Jews, He encourages 
me because he says it is refreshing to find someone interested in free 
dom and liberty. We often meet in the Caf6 de la Source, where we 
discuss politics and literature over coffee. 

"One evening I revealed to him my idea for a revival of the He 
brew nation. He seemed very much impressed and said he would do 
anything to aid me because of his feelings for freedom. Therefore, 
my first convert to The Idea is this man who is a Polish aristocrat 
and not a Jew at all. 

"I shall write to you from time to time of my progress. 

"Dear Deborah: 

"Life has become exciting for me in Park Through the kind of 
fices of my Polish friend I have been meeting many important peo* 


Convert No. 1 

pie and have been entertained in some of the great homes of Paris 
which are the meeting places of a circle of artists, literary figures, and 
diplomatic personalities such as Gambetta, Victor Hugo, Emile de 
Girardin, and Sarah Bernhardt. I have also met such Jewish figures 
as Adolphe Cremieux and others. In these circles one hears interest 
ing topics of the day and some evil language 3 from and about the 

"There was a big wedding in the Pantheon at which most of the 
important personalities of our time were present. Victor Hugo and 
an actor from the Comedie Frangaise spent the time walking around 
and around the Pantheon while the wedding was in progress discuss 
ing the cafe gossip about the morals of the bride, which I am sorry to 
say were very shocking. I know the story is true because I was pres 
ent, having been taken by my friend Tshashnikov. The story may of 
fend you, but I tell it because it amuses me that even such great men 
should indulge in the evil tongue. It is good, at least, to know that 
they are human. 

"I wish, Deborah, that you could be here to enjoy the experiences 
which I am having. I often think how it all started in Glubokiah, 
thanks to your father. 

"I regret to say that the cough troubles me and I have begun to 
spit blood, which Tshashnikov says is a bad symptom. I have an ap 
pointment soon with Dr. Charles Netter, the founder of the Mikveh 
Israel colony in Palestine. I shall take his advice, whatever it is. 


"Dear Deborah: 

"I must inform you that I have seen Dr. Netter and his diagnosis 
is not good. He says I have tuberculosis, that my lungs are badly af 
fected, and has ordered me to stop my studies immediately. He has 
recommended a climate such as Algiers. 

"The news has very much frightened me because I have the feel 
ing that I have not much longer to live. If I should find the means 
to go to North Africa it is likely that I would never be able to return 
to Paris to continue my studies. What is distressing is that I am on 
the threshold of success in my plan. It has taken me two years in 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Paris to prepare the ground. Now, just as I am ready to make the 
appeal to our people, the ground is to be cut from under me. I have 
worked hard, gaining the knowledge which I needed, but what good 
will it be if I die before I can put it to use? 

"I have the feeling of a person condemned to death and I so 
much wish to find a way to utter my last words. For this reason I 
work now without sleep to put onto paper the reasons why it is so 
important for the Jewish world to become inflamed with the idea of 
returning to the land of our forefathers and working for the freedom 
to which we are entitled. 

"I have decided that in order to have our own land and political 
life it is also necessary that we have a language to hold us together. 
That language is Hebrew, but not the Hebrew of the rabbis and 
scholars. We must have a Hebrew language in which we can con 
duct the business of life. It will not be easy to revive a language dead 
for so long a time. 

"The day is so short; the work to be done so great. 

"I wonder often, since receiving the report of the doctor, who is 
going to be the trustee of this great mission. My friend Tshashnikov 
has the enthusiasm and interest, but is not a Jew, which would make 
it impossible for him to carry on my plan. 

"For all these reasons I am working like a man with but a few 
hours to live. I cover hundreds of pieces of paper with arguments, 
reasons, and proofs. If I can write something which is convincing 
and get it into a publication where it will command attention, then 
possibly someone will be found to put the plan into action. 

"I beg you and your family to give me the benefit of your good 
wishes for my success at this critical time. 

"Dear Deborah: 

"I write with great excitement, for I have completed my appeal, 
It is not exactly as I wish it to be, but the day is so short, the work 
to be done so great, that I cannot delay longer. 

"I have sent the article to a Hebrew paper in Warsaw, Hamag- 
gid, which means The Teller/ Since the article has been posted I 
have not slept a single hour. My cough is worse, the spitting of blood 


Convert No. 1 

goes on aU the time, and the doctor insists I must go quickly to Al 
giers, but I cannot leave, even if I find the means, until I know that 
my appeal has been accepted for publication. 

"I shall inform you when I hear from the editor in Warsaw. 

"Ben Yehuda" 

P.S. Do not be surprised that I sign a new name to my letter. 
This is the name which will appear over my article. Someday I shall 
find the way to make it my own." 

Cognac Celebration 


There was no answer. Finally, alarmed that Eliezer might have died 
during one of his coughing spells, he ran down four flights of stairs 
to the quarters of the concierge and reported his fear. 

The white-haired concierge put on his coat, picked up a circle of 
wire strung with keys, and said: 

"Alors! Let us go and see. It is possible that something serious has 
happened, but I think not. I think it is the letter. For days noire 
triste jeune homme (that s what we call him) has been so nervous 
he neither eats nor sleeps. For days he comes to my room every few 
hours asking, Has a letter come? 

"Finally today it arrives. I climb all the stairs to deliver it to him. 
When he takes it, his hand shakes like a leaf on a tree in winter. 

"It must have been a small letter, because he reads it in one min 
ute, then throws it onto the floor. Then he walks back and forth. 
Then he picks it up and reads again. 

"What happened after that I do not know, because then I heard 
the noise of the bell on the street door, so I had to go down to let 
someone in. 

"But anyway, here is his room. I shall open the door and you can 


Cognac Celebration 

go in. If there is any need for the doctor I shall send my son. May 
the Blessed Virgin protect notre triste jeime homme!" 

Eliezer was face down on his bed, the letter beside him on the 
floor. After Eliezer had read the letter to him Tshashnikov under 
stood. It was one of the briefest rejections he had ever heard of. Ex 
cept for the formal salutation and conventional ending, it merely 

We find the article signed Ben Yehuda not good enough 
for publication. 

Tshashnikov was perplexed. 

"One thing I do not understand/ 5 he said. "This letter is ad 
dressed to you, but it concerns an article written by some Ben Ye 
huda. 3 Perhaps there has been an error!" 

Eliezer, after several deep coughs, replied: 

"No, Tshashnikov, there is no mistake. Ben Yehuda is the name 
I signed. It is my article which is not good enough for them; the 
article I worked on for so many months. I must admit now that I 
am finished. The world is against me and God is against me. God 
gave me this disease and the world now gives me a negative answer 
to my plan. . . ." 

Eliezer punctuated almost every sentence with a cough. He spoke 
more with resignation than bitterness. When he finished Tshash 
nikov said quietly: 

"Wash your face, Eliezer. I received some unexpected money to 
day and I think we both need a good meal. How many times have 
I told you the mind cannot function unless the body is fed? We shall 
talk about the article later, but tell me now, where did this pen name 
come from? Ben Yehuda! What does it mean?" 

"It is a name I have always liked. My father was Leib. That s 
Yiddish. Translated into Hebrew, it s Yehuda. Ben is Hebrew for 
son. So Ben Yehuda means Son of Yehuda, which is what I am. 
But there is a deeper significance. Yehuda is also the Hebrew word 
for Judea/ so I now have a name I like. Ben Yehuda, the Son of 

"Someday I wish to find a way to drop the name of Perlman, my 
own family s name, and also Elyanof, which I acquired for non- 

Tongue of the Prophets 

military purposes. Neither has any meaning to me. But Ben Yehuda 
is a good name. It has a good sound. How do you like it?" 

Tshashnikov smiled. This was Eliezer again. The color had begun 
to return to his face. 

Only after they had finished a good meal and were having coffee 
did the Pole allow the article to be discussed. Then he introduced 
the subject himself, saying: 

"I understand your feelings about the rejection, Eliezer, but surely 
there is some other Jewish weekly or monthly besides this one in 
Warsaw. Think now. Name me another!" 

"There is an important monthly in Vienna called Hashahar, 
which means The Dawn/ but its articles are all by famous literary 
people and big politicians. I am a nobody. Whoever heard of Ben 

"Send it anyway! What have you to lose? Sometimes you surprise 
me, Eliezer! You have such burning convictions, such energy, such 
enthusiasm, yet you allow one insignificant editor to wreck your en 
tire dream. If Hashahar rejects it, we shall try somewhere else." 

The reply from Hashahar was only a postal card, but if it had 
been on the finest of parchment, engraved in letters of gold, it could 
hardly have brought more happiness to the tubercular student from 

"We are pleased to announce that we are publishing your article 
in an early issue. We have changed the title from C A Burning Prob 
lem to *A Worthy Question. You possess a talent for writing. May 
your pen be blessed !" 

That was all, but it breathed new life into the twenty-two-year-old 
boy now known to himself, to an editor in Vienna, and to two 
friends as Ben Yehuda. That night as Tshashnikov approached the 
table in the Caf6 de la Source for their evening rendezvous he saw 
the transformation immediately. 

"I can read in your face that the article has been accepted, yes?" 

They sat long that night in the caf drinking cognac. Before they 
separated Tshashnikov gave Eliezer two pieces of advice, 

"First you must obey the doctor s order and go to Algiers, Then ? 
when your health returns* you must use your pen to keep the issue 


Cognac Celebration 

burning. You must convince others, as you have convinced me/ 5 

"But how am I to get to Algiers? It costs money to travel that 

"It shall be arranged. I have a few friends, thank God. Tomorrow 
I shall speak to some of them. Now, let us have one more cognac 
before we go." 

It was only a few days later that a copy of Hashahar arrived with 
Eliezer s new name in print for the first time. Sitting again in his 
favorite cafe, he spread the paper out on the table and with trem 
bling hands displayed it to Tshashnikov. 

Eliezer had read and reread the article to his friend in manuscript, 
but now he went through it again, translating passages he had re 

"If, in truth, each and every nation is entitled to defend its 
nationality and protect itself from extinction, then logically we, 
the Hebrews, also must needs have that same right. Why should 
our lot be meaner than that of all others? 

"Why should we choke the hope to return and become a 
nation in our deserted country which is still mourning its lost 
children, driven away to remote lands two thousand years ago? 
Why should we not follow the example of all nations, big and 
small, and do something to protect our nationality against ex 


Tshashnikov liked that passage and said : 

"It is compelling logic, Eliezer, and I see no possible argument 
against it!" 

Eliezer went on translating: 

"Why should we not lift ourselves up and look into the fu 
ture? Why do we sit cross-handed and do nothing which would 
serve as a basis upon which to build the salvation of our people? 
If we care at all that the name of Israel should not disappear 
from this earth, we must create a center for the whole of our 
people, like a heart from which blood would run into the 
arteries of the whole, and animate the whole. Only the settle 
ment of Eretz Israel can serve this purpose." 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"You improved that passage since you last read it to me. It is a 
good argument, plainly stated." 

Then they skipped to paragraphs which read: 

"Today, as in ancient times, this is a blessed land in which 
we shall eat our bread not meanly; a fertile land upon which 
nature has bestowed glory and beauty; a land in which only 
hard-working hands are needed to make it the happiest of all 
countries. All tourists to that place state such facts unanimously. 

"And now the time has come for us, the Hebrews, to do 
something positive. Let us create a society for the purchase of 
land in Eretz Israel; for the acquisition of everything necessary 
for agriculture; for the division of the land among Jews already 
present and those desiring to emigrate there, and for the pro 
vision of the funds necessary for those who cannot establish 
themselves independently." 

When he put down the article, Tshashnikov looked into Eliezer s 
pale face and said: 

"Remember your promise to go to Algiers? Well, I have found 
the means. I talked today to Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, 
the great French banker, and " 

"Surely you did not ask him for charity for me?" 

"Not charity, Eliezer. The baron is a good man, and you are one 
of his own people because you are both Jews. He is a man of great 
wealth; one of the few I know who consider the acquisition and pos 
session of money a responsibility, not just a right, I think that some 
day you may be able to win him to your big idea. In the meantime I 
have persuaded him to finance your trip to Algiers." 

"What did you tell him?" 

"Nothing about the nature of your writings. I merely advertised 
you to him as a young Jew of ability." 



Detective, Scholar, 

Magician, Midwife 


Judea," stayed many months in Algiers. During the winter Tshash- 
nikov came to visit him. He found his friend greatly improved in 
health and full of enthusiasm. 

The first night, as they sat down to dinner, Eliezer gave the Polish 
journalist a long dissertation on languages. He explained that He 
brew began to die out as a commonly spoken language at the time of 
the Maccabees, almost two hundred years before the start of the 
Christian Era, In one period Greek was the common language of 
many Jews. Later, as Jews settled in various parts of the world, they 
began to use the tongue of the countries in which they found them 

In Germany in the Middle Ages the Jews spoke the language of 
those around them, medieval German, only they wrote it in Hebraic 
characters. When vast numbers of them were forced to leave Ger 
many and settled in Poland and Russia they took medieval German 
with them as their language. But gradually their talk became un- 


Tongue of the Prophets 

intelligible to a German, even to a German Jew, for several reasons. 

Back in Germany, medieval German underwent many changes, 
until modern German finally developed. But in their ghettos in the 
East the Jews were isolated from such changes. Also, they grafted 
many Hebrew words to their language. And then they often dis 
torted words on purpose, in order to be able to say things among 
themselves without their non- Jewish neighbors being able to under 
stand. Thus Yiddish was born. 

The same.thing happened with medieval Spanish, which came to 
be known as Ladino. 

At this point Tshashnikov laughed and interrupted. 

"I already know some of this, Eliezer, but I wonder if you know 
that the Cockney which is spoken in the East End of London devel 
oped because the charwomen, the costermongers, the pub keepers 
wanted to be able to say things that the bobbies wouldn t be able 
to understand." 

Eliezer nodded, then, even more intent, he expounded his theory 
that if Jews were ever to be unified they must be given a common 
language again. 

"I read somewhere that we Jews speak seventy different lan 
guages, yet not one of us speaks our own language ! Today the lan 
guages of the ghetto cling to us like leprosy. We can never aspire to 
be free men, Tshashnikov, as long as we use those ghetto dialects. 

"They argue with me that Hebrew is a bookish language, lacks 
vitality. I ask them, when the prophets spoke to the people, did they 
speak only in the temples? Wasn t Hebrew, then, a language spoken 
in the streets, a language of the masses? 

"It s just that Hebrew needs to be modernized. I agree that it is 
equally important to have words for tools and dishes as words for 
philosophical concepts. Hebrew once had those words, but they have 
become lost. They entered Arabic and Greek and other languages 
as immigrants and remained as citizens. Now we must bring them 
back home again. 

"Listen to the people around us. They are aU Sephardic Jews* 
Listen to the depth of tone, the beauty of the way they talk. When 
they pray in Hebrew they make the words sound so melodious. 

"Wheipi the Afihkenazim (that s what we call the people who 


Detective, Scholar, Magician, Midwife 

speak Yiddish) , when they talk Hebrew they give it a distinctly Yid 
dish or Ashkenazim accent, but the Sephardic or Spanish Jews pro 
nounce the words quite differently, and with what I am sure is al 
most the sound that Hebrew had in ancient days." 

For a long time Tshashnikov listened. Finally he said: 

"I am no expert at languages, but I agree with you." 

"And don t you think, Tshashnikov, if we are going to have a 
common language for all the Jews of the world we should settle on 
one pronunciation?" 

"Certainly, but I imagine you will have a job getting your people 
from the north to give up their pronunciation. You are mapping out 
a big job for yourself, my frail friend. As far as I know, never before 
in history did any one man set out to create 3 a language. But how 
exciting! It will be like building a modern nineteenth-century struc 
ture on a solid foundation thousands of years old. Think of the 
words you will have to manufacture ! Think of the objects and ideas 
which did not exist two thousand years ago for which you will have 
to find expressions! For example, is there a Hebrew word for a ve 
hicle propelled by steam?" 

"We have two words in Hebrew, one for steam and one for en 
gine. We might combine them and call it a steam engine, just as they 
do in English, or like the French machine ti vapeur. 

"But you are right, one will have to spend years searching through 
Hebrew literature and in libraries all over the world for words which 
once were in the language and disappeared." 

"Yes, Eliezer, you will have to be detective, scholar, magician, 
and midwife all combined." 

By the time young Ben Yehuda returned to Paris, so many Jewish 
publications had reprinted his "appeal" or had commented on it 
that his scheme for the revival of the language and a return of Jews 
to the Middle East was the subject of discussion and debate wher 
ever Jewish intellectuals gathered. Most of the reaction, however, 
was negative. 

The opposition had many facets. There were those, like Eliezer s 
own mother, who wished to sit with folded hands and allow God to 


Tongue of the Prophets 

have His own unhampered way, without human intervention, which 
they considered sacrilegious. 

Then there were those who thought that an attempt to establish 
a Jewish state would arouse- dormant anti-Semites to new excesses of 
violence. They argued that better days had finally arrived for most 
Jews in the Diaspora; that there were now relatively few pogroms; 
that those willing to give up their identity as Jews and become as 
similated would be safe from further persecutions. They even advo 
cated intermarriage and abandonment of religious beliefs. Some 
went to this extreme because they were personally prospering and 
wanted no Jewish movement to interfere. 

Others contended that the writer who signed himself "Ben 
Yehuda" had painted too glowing a picture of Palestine; that it was 
all right to call it a "blessed land" but he had distorted facts when 
he spoke of "a fertile land upon which nature has bestowed glory 
and beauty; a land in which only hard-working hands are needed 
to make it the happiest of all countries." 

These critics argued that in the course of two thousand years, 
through neglect and a stripping of the natural resources, Palestine 
had become a barren waste which would require generations of back- 
breaking labor to make productive. 

After Eliezer returned to Paris he supported himself by doing 
translations from French to Russian. He attended classes at the Sor- 
bonne, listened to visiting lecturers, spent hours each day in the Paris 
libraries, covered hundreds of sheets of paper with amplifications of 
his ideas, and wrote numerous newspaper articles which he sent to 
a new outlet, a small newspaper in Jerusalem called Hahabatzeleth* 

In one article, answering the criticism that he was being blind to 
reality because the Turks would never allow the Jews any rights in 
Palestine, he wrote: 

"There are times in the history of a nation when it is not the 
clever ones who are important, but those who have vision to see 
through the dark curtain of actuality." 

While he was in Algiers, Eliezer had been in greatly improved 
health, but his cough and the attendant pains returned the first week 
after he returned to Paris. 


Detective, Scholar, Magician, Midwife 

One night, talking with Tshashnikov, he said: 
~~ "I have just about come to a great personal decision. I think I 
shall leave France and go to Palestine to spend the rest of my life 
among my own people." 

Tshashnikov blinked several times. Finally he said: 

"That, indeed, would be a drastic move. What are your reasons?" 

"It is a combination of many. A remark I overheard the other day 
had something to do with it. Some Jewish friends, not knowing that 
I was listening, said that if I were sincere I would go to the Holy 
Land myself instead of just urging others to do it. They said my 
honesty was open to question as long as I remained here myself. 
This started me thinking. 

"After all, there exists over there a nucleus of Jews who, for one 
reason or another, have already gone back. I must join them and 
convert them to the use of Hebrew as a spoken language. 

"If I am in Jerusalem myself I can send my appeals from there 
and base them on facts. I can report the true situation. I can speak 
then with authority. Here in Paris I am an insignificant student. 
There, perhaps, I can become the leader of a movement. 

"Besides and I hope that this will not offend you, Tshashnikov 
but honestly, I am not very happy using Russian and French as 
my languages. I want to be somewhere where I can speak Hebrew 
and hear others speak it and perhaps persuade them all to speak it. 

"I wish to start work on the language. The time is so short; the 
work to be done is so great. Palestine or Israel, as I prefer to call it 
is the place. I think I shall go soon. That, I know, is my destiny. 
I must live and work among my own people." 

Tshashnikov had listened patiently to the long speech flow with 
out interruption from the young student s lips. Finally he spoke him 

"A highly commendable decision, however much I shall miss you. 
Besides, there are practical reasons why you should go. Perhaps the 
climate there will be more favorable for you. I care enough for you 
so that I would rather know there is a living Ben Yehuda thousands 
of kilometers away than a dead Ben Yehuda here in Paris." 

"You have been a good friend, Tshashnikov. You have never once 
misunderstood me." Eliezer s eyes were blurred as he said it. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Others did not understand him as well. Reports that a young 
Jewish student named Eliezer Ben Yehuda was leaving the intellec 
tual center of the world for the bare desert sands of the Middle East, 
where he hoped to create the heart of a movement for the Jewish 
resettlement of the Holy Land and a revival of Hebrew as a spoken 
language, only brought forth a fresh wave of criticism. 

Some were tolerant enough to call him an idle dreamer. Others 
labeled him a fool. But there were those who went so far as to say 
that he should be treated as an enemy of the Jewish people and 
promptly disowned by them. 

But Eliezer s mind was made up and he began packing the bat 
tered suitcase which Father Yonas had given him in Glubokiah 
years before. 


Determined Chess 


wife s room with a letter in his hand. He was extremely agitated. 

"Where are the children?" he demanded. 

"They are all in bed except Deborah, She is down in the library 
reading. Why do you ask? Has something gone wrong? What is it, 

The father sat down and wiped his forehead. 

"I had better commence at the start. Here" and as he spoke he 
dug into the pocket of his coat "here is a small article I read in a 
Hebrew journal several weeks ago. It is only a few lines at the bot 
tom of a column. It says that a young Jewish scholar in Paris known 
as Ben Yehuda has decided to go to Palestine to start a movement 
for the speaking of the Hebrew language and bringing Jews back to 
the Holy Land. When I read it I remembered that Deborah has said 
our young friend Eliezer had written some articles signed Ben 
Yehuda. So I obtained his address from Deborah and wrote to him." 

"Why did you not tell me about the article, Shlomoh, when you 
first read it?" 

"I did not tell anyone; not even Deborah. I wanted to handle the 
matter myself." 


Tongue of the Prophets 
"I hope you did not write to Eliezer that- 

"Yes, I did ! I wrote in a very angry tone, I am afraid. I told him 
that Deborah has taken seriously the promise he made when he left. 
I told him she had been waiting for him waiting for him all these 
years to complete his education. I told him that she had grown re 
cently into a comely young lady, so fine-looking, so dainty, with 
culture to the tips of her fingers. I guess I did not restrain myself. 
I wrote as if I were describing the products of my distillery as if I 
were a salesman. 35 

"You told all that to Eliezer in the letter?" 

"Yes, and I was very stern about it. I said that we only wished to 
know what were his intentions. Why had he not given Deborah at 
least a chance to say no?" 

The father was pacing the room. With each sentence he grew 
more distraught. 

"His reply has just arrived. I picked it up myself at the post office 
a few minutes ago. It is a short note, Rivkah. He writes it all in 
Hebrew. I can no longer be angry with him. I wish now I had never 
written the letter to him." 

"But what does he say, Shlomoh!" 

"He says the article in the paper was true; that he is planning to 
go to Palestine. In fact, he leaves from Paris next week. We shall 
just have time to get an answer to him." 
"An answer to what?" 

"Rivkah, my dear, it seems that the poor boy has consumption. A 
very bad case of it. He fears that he has only a short time to live. 
Besides, he is very poor. He says that he has little more than money 
enough to make the trip to Jerusalem. He apologizes for his treat 
ment of us. He says that he has never forgotten Deborah and has a 
deep love for her, but that he never dreamed she would be interested 
in sharing his life, poor and consumptive that he is, and in a land so 
barren and savage as Palestine. But he writes further that if Deborah 
would by any chance be willing to accompany him she could join 
him in Vienna, where he is stopping off to see Peretz Ben Moshc 

"And who would that be?" 


Determined Chess 

"That is the name, Rivkah, of the editor of the paper which pub 
lished his first article. Remember? He says that if Deborah would 
meet him in Vienna they could get married there and then continue 
the journey together." 

"But, Shlomoh, you surely are not going to allow Deborah to 
marry a boy in that condition ! And Palestine ! It is so far away ! We 
would never see our daughter again!" 

"You talk, Rivkah, as if you did not know Deborah. How can 
anyone stop that girl when she sets her mind to something? You 
know how she talks all the time of Eliezer and . . ." 

It was Deborah s last night at home. For hours the Yonas house 
had echoed with songs and laughter. Three tables were piled high 
with wedding presents left by the guests. In the dining room, after 
the festivities were all over, enough food remained to feed the popu 
lation of a small village. 

Deborah herself had never looked lovelier. At her mother s re 
quest she had worn the dress which had been made especially for the 
wedding in Vienna. 

During the evening she had paid considerably more attention to 
her parents than to the guests. Each time she saw out of the corner 
of her eye that they were alone, or that they looked as if they were 
about to burst into tears again, she would dash over to them, put her 
arms around them, and whisper words designed to make them forget 
the sorrow which they so ill concealed. 

Now the last guest had departed. The other children had gone to 
their rooms, all except Pola, who had recently celebrated her tenth 
birthday. Pola had refused to leave the party, even when she no 
longer could keep her eyes open. Now she was asleep on a couch in 
the library. Mother Yonas had said good night and had told her 
husband and eldest daughter not to stay up much longer. But after 
she had gone upstairs,, Deborah turned to her father. With a tone 
that begged for understanding she said: 

"Father, this will be my last night under your roof. Tomorrow I 
go away on an adventure the end of which none of us can possibly 
foresee. I know you do not approve, but if it is within my power to 
make Eliezer happy I shall do it. I shall help him to the best of my 


Tongue of the Prophets 

ability in his great undertaking. Now, I wish you to do one last 
favor for me." 

Father Yonas looked puzzled. 

"I wish," the daughter continued, "that you would play a last 
game of chess with me before we go to bed." 

It was a close fight and lasted almost until dawn. As the father 
finally admitted defeat Deborah slipped from her chair, put a hand 
on his shoulder, and said : 

"And I am going to win the bigger game I am about to play, too, 
just you wait and see!" 

Because it would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, to ob 
tain for Deborah all the documents needed for her trip, Father 
Yonas persuaded his own brother to accompany the young woman 
as far as the Russian frontier and help smuggle her across the border. 

Two days later the brother returned. He carried a small paper 
package with him. The entire Yonas family clustered around him to 
ask whether Deborah had been shot trying to sneak across the fron 
tier; was she still alive; what dire events had occurred; had there 
been any "incidents"? 

The brother tried to smile. Nothing had happened. She got across 
all right. They had outwitted the frontier guards. She sent her love. 

"But what," asked Father Yonas, "do you carry in the small 

The brother opened it. Mother Yonas burst out crying when she 
saw the small silk cushion she had given Deborah to use on the train 
when she wanted to sleep. 

"As the girl sneaked across the frontier," the uncle explained, 
"she dropped it. If I had run after her we might both have been 
caught. So I picked it up and brought it back." 

Mother Yonas clutched the pillow to her breast, sobbing with no 
attempt at self-restraint: 

"My Deborah ! This is all that I have left of my oldest daughter !" 


Two Is Company 


was a long and tedious one. But the young Jewish scholar had 
plenty of thoughts to occupy his mind as he traveled across the 
French countryside and on into Germany, 

He would have only several more days to get reconciled to the 
idea of a partnership, instead of a solitary adventure. In these past 
few years he had had little feminine companionship. In fact, Debo 
rah was the only girl he had ever really known. Years ago he had 
occasionally dreamed of the two of them sharing a life together, but 
since the doctors had warned him about the seriousness of his physi 
cal condition, even that thought had grown dim, 

Of course he had the natural and normal feelings of any young 
man contemplating his own impending marriage, but in addition 
he had to fit Deborah into the plan of his crusade. They would have 
children, of course, and Deborah would become the first Hebrew 
mother in nearly two thousand years! She would talk only Hebrew 
by then, and their children would be the first children in almost two 
thousand years to know no other language. This would be an exam 
ple for other Jews. It would be as important in propagating the idea 
as all the articles and all the books he himself might write. Deborah 

Ben Yehuda, the first Hebrew mother ! 



Tongue of the Prophets 

How much had she changed in all these years? Would she be will 
ing to sacrifice for the ideals he believed in? Life would be rugged in 
Palestine, and the Jews there might not receive them with open 
arms. They might be suspicious or even hostile. There might be in 
numerable complications. But the die was now cast. Deborah at this 
very moment was probably on the way toward their rendezvous in 

Peretz Ben Moshe Smolenskin, the Viennese editor, greeted 
Eliezer with an announcement which brought color into the young 
man s pale face and made his eyes dance with excitement. 

They were sitting in the editor s office, after exchanging formal 
greetings, when Smolenskin smiled and said : 

"By the way, I have printed your article entitled Letter from Ben 
Yehuda and also the third one you sent. 35 

When he saw how pleased Eliezer seemed, he added : 

"You will not be so happy, however, when you see that I have 
printed my own answers to the arguments in your first two articles. 
I tore them to pieces !" 

Eliezer looked crestfallen. Timidly he said : 

"Perhaps if I read what you wrote I would be able to reply." 

"That is not necessary. Such work has been done by someone 

The editor paused a moment, apparently enjoying his guest s con 
fusion. Then he continued : 

"I did it myself. I have myself written against my own arguments 
in my own paper. 

"I had always thought that Jews could live happily in the coun 
tries of their dispersion if they merely announced to the world their 
intention to be good citizens of the various places where they found 

"But before the ink was dry on my own words, terrible things be 
gan to happen in Russia which destroyed all my arguments. 

"I have just come back from a long trip through Russia, I have 
seen myself how wrong I was. 

"I saw ugly sights, Ben Yehuda. The pogroms have begun again 
in certain quarters. Our people are being persecuted, even killed. 


Two Is Company 

I saw how essential it is that we build a sanctuary in Palestine for 
Jews who wish to escape from the cruelties so often inflicted upon us. 

"Of course we shall have opposition among our own people. The 
battle will be hard. But you are on the right road, young man, and 
you shall have the full support of Hashahar, which now has as its 
motto, The Rebirth of the People of Israel on the Soil of Israel. " 

Elated, Eliezer hurried back to his hotel to see if a telegram had 
come yet from Deborah. But there was no telegram from her. Per 
haps she had changed her mind. Perhaps her parents had argued her 
out of coming. Perhaps . . . 

While he was sitting on the edge of the bed, full of black thoughts, 
there was a rap at the door. Before he could answer it, the door 
opened gently. Eliezer looked and blinked several times. Who was 
this apparition standing there with a half -smile on her face? Not . . . 

They shouted each other s names and then greeted each other as 
lovers should. Several times Eliezer backed away from Deborah and 
looked her over. Her father had been right. 

For an hour they chattered in a mixture of French and Russian, 
the two languages Deborah had taught him. How was her trip? 
[Why had she not sent him a telegram announcing the time of her 

"But I did, Eliezer. It should have come hours ago. I sent it . . * M 

While she was still explaining, the telegram arrived. 

That same day they discovered the impossibility of being married 
in Vienna. Birth certificates and other documents were required, 
which they neither had nor could easily obtain. They were advised 
that there would be no such difficulties in Turkey, so they decided to 
wait until they reached Constantinople. 

The two young lovers were together almost constantly during the 
week they remained in the Austrian capital. They wandered the, 
streets hand in hand, visited museums, and even saw an opera. For 
some reason which he never explained to Deborah, Eliezer told 
neither the editor nor several other friends he had in Vienna about 
his fiancee. 

Their last day in Vienna, Eliezer received a letter with French 
stamps on the envelope. When he finished reading it he turned to 
Deborah with excitement and said: 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"This is wonderful news ! Tshashnikov is going with us !" 

"And who is Tshashnikov?" Deborah asked rather icily. 

"Oh, you ll like him very much, Deborah. He s the best friend I 
have in the world ! He s the Polish journalist I knew in Paris. I wrote 
to you all about him. Surely you remember! 35 

Deborah obviously was trying to control her feelings, but her voice 
was severe as she said : 

"What do you mean, he is going with us? Not to Palestine ! Not 
on our, honeymoon !" 

Eliezer did not seem to understand. 

"He writes that he will meet us in Constantinople; that we must 
wait there for him. It will be wonderful having him. . . ." 

"You say he writes that he is going to meet us. Does he know 
about me? 53 

Eliezer stammered as he replied : 

"As a matter of fact, Deborah, I believe I forgot to tell him 
about you. But you will like each other very much." 

The girl from Glubokiah let the matter drop, but that night she 
cried herself to sleep. 

August of 1 88 1 was a pleasant month. The days were soft and 
warm, the sky cloudless, the landscape, as the Danube grew wider 
and wider, extremely picturesque. 

, The few other passengers on the small river steamer, sensing that 
the two who spent so much time standing close together on the deck 
looking out at the scenery were lovers, left them alone. 

The first evening Deborah and Eliezer ignored the dinner bell and 
stood looking into the twilight at the shore line* Suddenly Eiiezer 
turned and said in Hebrew : 

"How beautiful it is !" 

Deborah, although not sure of the words, sensed what they meant 
by the way Eliezer said them, so she repeated them back to him : 

"Yes, Eliezer, how beautiful it is!" 

That was the first conversation they ever held in the language 
which they were both going to give their lives to propagate. 

A few minutes later Eliezer pointed toward the southeast and said, 
again in Hebrew: 


Two Is Company 

"Off there, Deborah, in the land of our forefathers, on the banks 
of the River Jordan, you shall someday soon become the first Hebrew 
mother of our times." 

When he translated the words into French, Deborah laughed and 

"How many times must I remind you, Eliezer, that we are not yet 
even married!" 

In Constantinople there were again difficulties about papers. They 
were told it would be easier in Cairo. 

Deborah wanted to go at once, but Eliezer reminded her that they 
must wait for his Polish friend. While they waited they explored the 
Turkish capital, took a boat trip on the Bosporus, wandered through 
the bazaars, and behaved like two honeymooners, despite the fact 
that the honeymoon had not yet technically begun. 

Finally Tshashnikov arrived. He threw his arms around his frail 
young friend in greeting. Eliezer watched his face as he presented 
Deborah, saying: 

"I should have told you before. We are going to be married." 

Tshashnikov obviously was impressed by her loveliness. His eyes 
showed that. But as Eliezer said "married," Tshashnikov s face 
clouded. He recovered himself quickly, however, and took them 
both by the arm as they headed for their hotel. 

Late that evening, after the men had retired to the room they 
were sharing, Eliezer, with childlike eagerness, asked: 

"Tell me quickly, how do you like her?" 

"An exceptionally charming girl; very talented, obviously. I like 
her immensely, except " 

"Except what, Tshashnikov?" 

"I do not wish to hurt you, Eliezer, but I think it is a great mis 
take. I wish you had told me sooner. She is pretty and intelligent, 
but she is a woman, and you know so little about women ! She is frail 
and delicate. Will she be able to stand the physical hardships? Obvi 
ously she has come from a good home, accustomed to a soft life. For 
her it will be like going from civilization to barbarism." 

Eliezer finally managed to say: 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"But we are very much in love. Do you understand?" 

"That I find difficult to believe. You have not seen her for years. 
I know a thing or two about love. You could not have been in love 
with her all these years and ignored her as you have done. This is 
madness. You should come to your senses before it is too late." 

"But, Tshashnikov, she is going to be a very valuable assistant to 
me in my work. We took an oath on the boat that we would both 
devote our lives to the ideal." 

"That is another point against your marriage, Eliezer. I doubt 
whether she will be of any help. I myself, who am not a Jew, know 
more Hebrew than she does. How much will she be willing to sacri 
fice for your ideal? Now if you had decided to take as a wife one of 
those Jewish girls we met down in Algiers, it would be different. At 
least from one of them you could have learned something. I mean 
something about that pronunciation you like so well. We must talk 
more about it later, but now I am tired. Let s go to sleep." 

Deborah was in a lonely position. She wanted desperately to talk 
to someone other than Eliezer about his Polish friend. It was years 
later before she finally was able to confide in members of her own 
family, but by then the problem was over. 

She resented Tshashnikov s presence. He was a discordant note 
in what had started out as a lovely symphony. Being romantic and 
having lived so many years for this reunion with the man she loved, 
she felt that Tshashnikov should have the good grace to leave them 
alone. But they were seldom alone. Wherever they went it was al 
ways a threesome. 

Tshashnikov was handsome and intelligent and deeply interested 
in EKezer s project, but he made her feel as if she were the outsider. 

There was another aspect of the problem which she hardly dared 
think about. Whenever there was an opportunity, whenever Eliezer 
was busy, Tshashnikov sought her out and on such occasions was 
exceedingly charming. 

She tried to put the thought from her mind. 

Then one day when Eliezer had gone off on a minor shopping 
trip Tshashnikov said he wanted to have a long talk with her. They 
walked together along the hill overlooking the Bosporus, For a few 


Two Is Company 

minutes they watched the small boats down in the harbor, their 
movements and the colors of their sails making them look like gaily 
costumed ballet dancers, Deborah thought. 

Then suddenly the Pole turned to her and said : 

"How much do you love Eliezer?" 

It was a stupid question, but Deborah had decided it was time to 
speak bluntly. 

"I love him with great intensity. You should know that. I also 
admire him and wish to help him. What more could any man ask 
from any woman? Now tell me why you try to embarrass me?" 

Tshashnikov launched into a long monologue. Doubt after doubt 
he tried to sow in her mind. But the remark for which she never 
quite forgave him came at the end. 

"I do not presume to advise you, but if you should decide to 
change your mind and return to your home in Lithuania, I stand 
ready to volunteer my services. I should be most happy to accom 
pany you. We could have a pleasant trip back north together. Think 
seriously before you reject all I have said." 

Deborah did a great deal of serious thinking in the days that fol 
lowed. At night as she tossed on her bed, unable to drive away the 
doubts, she was unaware that in a room a short distance down the 
hall Eliezer was also tossing; also tormented by doubts planted in his 
mind by his good friend. 

Whenever Deborah saw the two men talking together she sus 
pected that Tshashnikov was making more propaganda against the 
marriage. All three of them were nervous and irritable. The prema 
ture honeymoon no longer had any of the aspects of a honeymoon. 

When they arrived in Cairo the tension grew greater. 

"The first thing we must do," Eliezer announced, "is to look up 
a rabbi whose wife I know. There is a reason why I must see him at 


Tshashnikov gave no sign that he knew what Eliezer meant, but 
Deborah s feminine instinct told her, so sjtie whispered that she must 
see Eliezer alone. The conference took place in the hotel lobby. 
Deborah put her hand lightly on his arm and said: 

"Haveevee, let s be honest with each other." 

Eliezer smiled. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"You have never called me that before. Haveevee e my dear one. 
How did you learn that Hebrew word?" 

Deborah smiled a little sadly. 

"First you must answer some questions. Are you sure of me, 
Eliezer? Are you sure you really want to marry me? We have had 
our honeymoon, but we have not yet been joined as man and wife. 
It is still not too late to "change our minds." 

Eliezer tried to look startled, then said : 

"Before I answer, you must tell me whether Tshashnikov has been 
talking to you, or are these doubts of your own creation?" 

Deborah hung her head a moment, debating. Finally she replied: 

"I have never had any doubts of my own, Eliezer. Not for years 
and years. I think I can be a good wife and help in your work. But 
your friend thinks otherwise. Perhaps he is right. It is really up to 
you to decide. Only decide quickly, because " 

Eliezer took her right hand tightly in his. 

"I shall give you my answer within an hour. And now . . ." 

He looked at his watch. 

"Now we must hurry, because I have an appointment and we 
must pick up Tshashnikov on the way." 

At the rabbi s house they were greeted warmly by the rabbi s wife, 
who had known Eliezer in Diinaburg. When the rabbi appeared, 
Tshashnikov was introduced, and Deborah. Then Eliezer, with a 
smile to the rabbi, took Deborah s hand and, looking straight into 
her eyes, said: 

"Harei at mekudeshet lee." 

There was an exclamation from the rabbi s wife. Deborah also 
understood the significance of the words. Only Tshashnikov was 

"This is unfair," he said. "What do the words mean?** 

It was the rabbi who explained. 

"Translated literally, they mean, You are herewith betrothed 
to me, and according to Jewish tradition, this alone is sufficient to 
unite two young people in marriage if spoken in the presence of two 
witnesses. We have two witnesses, and so . * /* 

Then he turned, beaming, to Eliezer. 

Two Is Company 

"An3 so, congratulations, my son, and now if my good wife will 
get the wine and sweet cakes we shall have a celebration. How won 
derful all this is! I had no idea we would have a wedding party 

Deborah, still holding Eliezer s hand, turned to Tshashnikov and 

"We are both waiting. Are you not going to congratulate us and 
wish us well?" 


One Gold Louis 


steamed along the Mediterranean coast it made many stops. At each 
port tall, brawny young Arabs in colorful costumes came aboard. 
They fascinated Deborah, but their gaiety depressed Eliezer. Finally 
he said to his young bride: 

"They also are on their way to Palestine, but for them it is home. 
These Arabs are the citizens; we are the foreigners." 

The last night before they reached Jaffa, Eliezer was unaHe to 
sleep. He walked the deck for hours. He felt alone on the ship, for 
there was no other sign of life. Then the stars disappeared and the 
east began to be tinged with pink and golden shades. 

Deborah and Tshashnikov came up on deck in time to see a, black 
streak appear on the eastern horizon, gradually increasing in size 
until they all knew that this was Jaffa, Small houses cropped up out 
of nowhere. The decks of the ship began to swarm with passengers. 

Eliezer stood at the rail, staring at the shore line. Here was the 
Holy Land about which he had dreamed so much. Here were the 
deserts, the hills, the valleys about which he had read so much. How 
many times* down through the ages, had Jews tried to come back 
home, only to be driven away again! 

One Gold Louis 

Now he, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, Son of Judea, was approaching this 
place himself, on a mission. Would he, too, someday be driven away, 
or would his arrival be the forerunner of a great return of his own 

Deborah came and stood close beside him. There was much she 
wanted to say, but knowing her husband, she remained silent, merely 
holding his hand. 

The ship anchored half a mile from shore. The passengers were 
helped into small boats. That half-mile trip was one which neither 
Deborah nor Eliezer ever forgot. The dark-skinned Arabs who man 
aged the boats seemed as strong as young giants. They were bare to 
the waist. Their muscles stood out on their arms. They manipulated 
their small craft with consummate skill through the rocks which 
dotted the port. As they rowed they raised their voices in a chant, 
singing prayers from the Koran for a safe landing. The waves were 
high and angry. Because Deborah was frightened, Eliezer began to 
talk softly to her. 

"This is a place, my dear, famous in our Jewish history. It was 
originally awarded to the tribe of Dan, but as we shall soon see, it is 
now an Arab place." 

Finally they set foot on "our land," as Eliezer called it. Their diz 
ziness from the buffeting was now heightened by the heat, the 
smells, the noises around them. Deborah clung to Eliezer s arm. 
Tshashnikov, the well-traveled man, tried to reassure them. 

"This is the edge of the Orient, my friends. A different world! 
How picturesque! Look at the rounded domes of the mosques!" 

"Must picturesque things always be so dirty and evil-smelling?" 
Deborah asked, wanting an answer. 

They stopped at a small hotel to inquire about transportation to 
Jerusalem. The manager greeted them with several words of He 
brew. When Eliezer replied in Hebrew the man looked as surprised 
as if he had heard a voice from the dead. He asked Eliezer his name 
and destination. When he heard the words "Ben Yehuda" his face 
broke into a broad smile. 

"I have read your articles in the Jerusalem paper!" 

He told them they should not start before sundown, when the 
evening dew would begin to temper the heat of the scorching sun. 

Tongue of the Prophets 

Meanwhile, he said, he would send a telegram to Editor Frumkin to 
meet them. 

The carriage they finally took, drawn by three emaciated horses, 
was little better than a large wooden box on wheels. There were no 
regular seats, only wooden benches without backs. They had to put 
their luggage under their feet. 

"They say that this is luxury traveling," Tshashnikov reported. 
"I would hate to see what third class is like!" 

"When do we get there?" Deborah asked. 

"About the time the sun comes up," Eliezer replied as he formed 
his right shoulder into the semblance of a pillow on which Deborah 
could rest her head. 

Eliezer, while Deborah dozed, had conversation with the coach 
man, at first in French, which the man said he had learned at the 
Mikveh Israel school founded by the doctor Eliezer had consulted 
in Paris. During the night it developed that the coachman also knew 
a little Hebrew. Before the night was over Eliezer had made his first 
real friend in Palestine. Hayim Jacob, the coachman, said he must 
never travel between Jaffa and Jerusalem with anyone else. He 
would be Mr. Ben Yehuda s "official chauffeur." 

(Half a lifetime later, when the Jewish Coachmen s Association 
held a celebration honoring Hayim Jacob, its oldest member, Eliezer 
was one of the guests of honor.) 

About midnight they reached Bab el Wad (Gate of the Valley) , 
At this point the road began to climb, so the journey was interrupted 
to change horses for the final, steep twenty-four kilometers. 

Most of the other passengers, including Tshashnikov, got out to 
stretch their legs or have a cup of thick Turkish coffee. This gave 
Eliezer a chance to spread several coats on one of the vacated 
benches so Deborah could rest horizontally for a few moments. As 
she lay there she looked up at her young husband and said : 

"Haveevee, I am trying to be kind to the Pole because he is your 
friend, but ever since we got off the ship he has been looking at me 
as if to say, *I told you so F 

"He actually seemed glad that Jaffa was so dirty and smelly. He 
seems glad that this journey is so long and difficult He seems so 


One Gold Louis 

sure I am going to give up and leave you. But I swear, Eliezer, I am 
not. As long as my body holds out I shall remain at your side." 

The young man who arrived at Jerusalem on the twenty-second 
day of Tishri, which is the first month in the Hebrew calendar, in 
the year called by Christians 1881, was of medium height, blond, 
with deep-sunk brown eyes, frail, and very aesthetic-looking. He 
wore European clothes, topped by a blue beret. He was twenty-three 
years old, but his battle with consumption made him look consider 
ably the senior of his twenty-seven-year-old wife. 

She was slightly taller than he was. Although she also had the 
face of an aesthete, her figure was well rounded, and except for the 
strains of travel she was a picture of good health. 

The carriage left them outside the gates of the city, which was 
just as well, for from this short distance they could get a view in 
perspective. The domes and towers of Jerusalem at this moment 
were painted with the morning s pinks and reds. 

"How picturesque!" Deborah exclaimed, to which Tshashnikov 
maliciously replied : 

"But do not forget what goes with picturesqueness !" 

Deborah ignored him. Eliezer had not even heard; he was stand 
ing with his slim hands clasped behind his back, a strange, almost 
fanatical expression in his eyes. 

"The City of David!" He said the words with religious awe. 

Slowly the three approached one of the great gates. It was closed 
and locked, for the night was not yet officially over; not until the 
sun actually showed itself above the horizon. The only entrance for 
humans was by a small gate cut in the large gate and known as the 
Needle s Eye. In order to enter this small gate it was necessary to 
stoop very low. 

Tshashnikov and Deborah had started to crouch down to go in 
when Eliezer suddenly shouted : 

"No ! I shall not enter the Holy City like an animal. I shall not 
enter with bent back!" 

As he finished speaking the large gates suddenly began to creak 
on their hinges and swing open. 

"A miracle !" Eliezer exclaimed, still in somewhat of a trance. 

Tshashnikov laughed. "I would call it, instead, merely good 


Tongue of the Prophets 

timing. We have arrived, as you will notice, just with the sun; just 
when the gates are normally opened." 

Silently the two men and the girl made their way through the 
almost deserted streets, but before they had gone far Arab peasants 
began to clutter the way. The smells were the same as in Jaffa. The 
filth was just as deep. Deborah put a handkerchief to her nose. Now 
an occasional fellah (Arab peasant) came along, leading a small 
donkey loaded down with coal, pieces of wood, or sacks of lime. 
Now an occasional fellahah (Arab peasant woman) scuffled by in 
bare feet on her way to the market place with a basket of vegetables 
or fruit balanced nonchalantly on her head. 

These native peoples looked suspiciously at the European 
strangers. A few greeted them with the Arabic words for good 
morning, which meant nothing to Ben Yehuda, who answered 
in Hebrew, a language which meant nothing to the Arab peasants. 

Now the streets commenced to swarm with life. Arabs began pour 
ing in from all sides. The men were dark and mysterious-looking in 
their long oriental garments. The women, Deborah observed, had a 
strange, passive dignity. They undulated as they walked. They 
seemed completely unconscious of the baskets balanced so pre 
cariously on their heads. 

Tshashnikov said he wished to make a call at the Russian con 
sulate; he would see them later. 

Now they were alone. Deborah held tightly to Eliezer s arm. A 
mutual fear flowed back and forth between them, although they 
spoke to each other only in monosyllables. 

So this was Jerusalem the Golden, with milk and honey blessed? 
Where were their own people? Red-fezzed Arabs seemed to domi 
nate the place. Where was the spirit of holiness they had expected? 

They walked bewildered through the narrow, crooked, ill-paved 
streets, as if wandering through a nightmare. Was this the city which 
had seen so many centuries of conflict, siege, plunder, massacre, and 

The streets were lined with dingy huts, dilapidated wooden struc 
tures or shops which had dirty cloths hung over holes in the wall in 
place of doors. 

"Squalor" and "wretchedness" were the two words that came to 


One Gold Louis 

Eliezer s mind. The people all seemed poor and diseased. They were 
all dressed in rags. 

Was this the city which men from all corners of the globe had 
fought over? What interest could Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, 
Romans, Assyrians, and Christian crusaders have had in this squalid 
beehive of depressed humanity? 

A cobbler sat in an open doorway stitching a shoe which was so 
worn out that it looked like a piece of old cheese full of wormholes. 
Peasant women lined the edges of the roads, haggling over the price 
of their herbs and vegetables with women shoppers. 

Was this the city in which the prophets had preached and from 
which great religious truths had spread around the world? Was this 
the city which had been destroyed and reconstructed eighteen times 
and had suffered two long periods of desolation and had passed 
from one religion to another six different times? 

It was difficult to imagine Abraham here, yet Abraham had 
walked this very way. 

Eliezer saw none of the ancient mysticism and beauty he had ex 
pected to find. To him, on this pink-and-red early morning, Jeru 
salem seemed just another smelly Arab city. 

Deborah later admitted that if a thought could have transported 
her back to where they had come from she would have vanished that 
morning from Jerusalem and landed quickly in Vienna. 

In an especially narrow street they were suddenly accosted by 
two men who looked unlike the others. In Yiddish they addressed 
Eliezer, saying: 

"Are you Mr. Ben Yehuda? If so, we are to take you to the home 
of Mr. Israel Dov Frumkin." 

Deborah s grip on Eliezer s arm relaxed. "Is he the man you told 
me about?" 

"Yes, my dear, he is the editor of that weekly pamphlet called 
Hahabatzeleth. The name means either a crocus, a lily, a rose, or a 
lily of the valley. I shall have to do some research someday and find 
out exactly which flower it is. No one seems to be sure. Anyway, I 
wrote many articles for the paper from Paris." 

As the two strangers led the way, Deborah said in French to her 

Tongue of the Prophets 

"Did you notice that they did not even look at me? Why was 

Eliezer smiled and patted her hand. 

"We shall have to get accustomed to many things, my dear. It is 
only that they are extremely pious Jews who have a belief that it is 
wrong for a man to look at a woman in public." 

The Ben Yehudas were received politely by the Frumkin family, 
but as soon as the editor and Eliezer went to his office to talk of 
serious matters, Mrs. Frumkin,, with four children tugging at her 
skirts, reproved Deborah for not having her head covered by a shawl 
in the Orthodox manner. 

Meanwhile Eliezer and Editor Frumkin, a little annoyed that the 
young man insisted they converse in Hebrew, were discussing the 
articles he had written. Finally the editor asked if Eliezer had any 
money. Where did he propose to live? 

"I have," said young Ben Yehuda, "one solitary coin. One gold 
louis. I am very much in need of employment which will supply us 
with bed and board." 

Frumkin invited them to be his house guests for a few days and 
said he would propose a more permanent arrangement later. 

The few days passed happily. The Ben Yehudas got over their 
first horror of Jerusalem and began to fed at home in the twisting 
little streets. 

Then the editor made Ben Yehuda a proposition. The young man 
would become associate editor of the weekly pamphlet. His wife 
would assist Madame Frumkin in her household duties. For re 
muneration they would receive their room and meals. 

Ben Yehuda quickly accepted, but Deborah that night, after 
blowing out the light, said : 

"Eliezer, I have a suspicion that Editor Frumkin is not at all in 
agreement with us. We must be very careful to win him over, in 
stead of his winning us over. We must not sell our souls for a few 
loaves of bread !" 

Tshashnikov had found quarters with an old acquaintance, but 
the day after their arrival he took Eliezer around to the Russian 

One Gold Louis 

consulate and introduced him to the consul general. After they left 
the building he said : 

"Our paths are going to separate now. You have a long hard road 
which you have chosen for yourself. Apparently Deborah is going 
to share it with you. 

"Before your marriage I tried to argue you out of it. Deborah is a 
lovely girl and . . ." 

As he hesitated, with the sentence unfinished, Eliezer felt there 
was something more his friend wanted to say. But Eliezer, afraid to 
hear it, did not encourage him. 

The Polish journalist quickly passed his hand over his face and 
began a new sentence. 

"I shall disappear from your life now and you can forget that I 
ever existed. I hope you will be very happy and very successful. I 
shall always follow from a distance your campaign. In case I do not 
see either of you again, you will say all these things to Deborah, also, 

"But, Tshashnikov, you came down here to help me get started on 
my project. Surely you are not going to leave already!" 

"I did not say that I am leaving. On the other hand, I did not say 
I am staying. My plans are unimportant." 

Having said "Shalom," the Hebrew word for "peace," which Jews 
use instead of "hello" and "good-by," he turned on his heel and 
walked off. As Eliezer watched his tall form disappear down the 
crooked street he wondered about many things. 

(After that day he never mentioned Tshashnikov by name again, 
not even in his writings. Years later, in a small book of memoirs, he 
referred to him only as "our Polish acquaintance.") 

It was only a few days before Deborah s phophecy about Frumkin 
turned out to have been well founded. The editor and Eliezer were 
in disagreement almost from the start. They were diametrically op 
posed not only on the ideological plane, but also temperamentally. 
Their arguments in the newspaper office spread to the house and 
began to involve Deborah and Mrs. Frumkin. The air was tense, 
and it soon became clear that the cohabitation scheme would have 
to be abandoned. 

The solution finally arrived at was that Eliezer would continue to 


Tongue of the Prophets 

hold the job, he and his wife would find quarters of their own, and 
he would receive a salary of one napoleon per month, about five 

As they packed Deborah said : 

"Haveevee, we are like Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of 
Eden. I am afraid we are going to miss this place very much." 

"Yes, and I have not told you the worst. Frumkin insists that he 
will not pay me my salary in advance. I shall have to wait a whole 
month for my first compensation !" 

"But, Eliezer, how are we going to live? People who rent rooms 
are not like Frumkin. They believe in c pay in advance !" 

Eliezer answered by holding out his right hand and displaying the 
gold louis left over from the trip. 

"Let s go now," he said, "and see how much of a living it will buy 
for us." 

That afternoon the two discouraged young Europeans found, 
finally, a future home. In return for the gold coin an old Sephardic 
woman rented them two rooms in an abandoned tenement. To 
reach the building it was necessary to cross through seven dirty 
courtyards ankle-deep in debris. To reach the rooms it was necessary 
to climb a rope ladder. 

The floors were of bare stone. The walls had been plastered once 
but now were thick with grime. The ceilings were concave, like those 
of mosques. There was no furniture in the rooms, not even a chair or 

The two windows looked out onto the Wailing Wall, which for 
centuries had provoked the lachrymose lamentations of millions of 
Jews. The sobs and moans seemed to come through the cracks in the 
walls even when the windows were closed. 

Deborah left her husband for a few moments and returned 
smiling, in each palm a shining gold louis* 

She explained that she had gone to a pawnbroker s shop and had 
sold a jewel which her mother had hung around her neck on a velvet 
ribbon as she left home. 

The next morning Eliezer went to visit a man he had met in a 
hospital in Paris, Abraham Moses Lunz. He had left school at the 
age of sixteen in rebellion against an Orthodox education. For the 


One Gold Louis 

past two years he had been completely blind and yet, although he 
was only four years Eliezer s senior, he was already well on the road 
to a career which would bring him fame in the fields of archaeology, 
history, geography, anthropology, literature, and sociology. He al 
ready knew Hebrew, Yiddish, German, French, English, and several 
other languages and was working on two or three books at the same 

While Eliezer was gone Deborah called on a neighbor to get some 
advice about household problems. One of the first questions she 
asked was where to buy bread. 

"Buy bread? Buy bread? One does not buy bread, child! One 
bakes bread. Surely you know that much !" 

"But I do not know how to bake bread. Could you teach me?" 

The old woman agreed, then quickly took back her promise. 

"No ! I could not help you, and no one else will help you, until 
you act like a Jewish woman. Good Jewish women never go around 
with their hair exposed, even in their own homes. Keep your head 
covered and I shall teach you to bake bread." 

Later Eliezer explained that the Orthodox custom of not exposing 
the hair was based on an ancient theory that the sight of hair has an 
erotic effect on men and therefore no respectable woman would thus 
arouse the baser passions of strange men she might encounter on the 

At different times, in different countries, among the more or the 
less Orthodox, the custom had varied. Some shaved the head bare 
and covered it with a cloth. Others merely hid the hair. Still others, 
even at this time in Jerusalem, shaved the head and then wore a wig 
called a sheitel, which in turn was covered, as a sign of chastity, by a 

When Eliezer returned from his visit he found his wife s luxuriant 
crop of reddish-blond hair covered by a scarf, and she was kneading 

"Do not be angry, Haveevee. I know how you hate the idea of 
all those people wailing outside our windows at the wall, and you 
will like even less some of their other customs. But if we are to win 
their approval of your ideas we first must win their approval of us as 
Jews. I must become one of them and so must you !" 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Eliezer laughed. 

"It is strange, but I was thinking the same thing. It came to me 
with undeniable potency that we must change many things about 
our way of life. I was afraid you might not understand, but now that 
you have led the way, I shall follow." 

So they made several more trips to the pawnshop and sold several 
more articles which Deborah had cherished. 

Then one morning Eliezer appeared in the streets of Jerusalem so 
changed that hardly anyone recognized him. He had become, over 
night, an Oriental. His robe was long, olive green in color, and 
trimmed with the fur of a red fox. A broad girdle encircled his 
waist. On his head he wore a tarboosh, or red fez. He had started to 
let his blond beard grow. This was the Sephardic costume of the 
day. Eliezer preferred it to the dress of the Ashkenazic Jews, just as 
he preferred the Sephardic pronunciation. It was more flamboyant, 
less ugly, he thought. 

About his beard, Deborah said, cocking her head on one side and 
looking at him as an artist might at a model : 

"What a strange world this is! I must hide my hair and you must 
grow more hair! Yet as I look at you, Eliezer, I realize how hand 
some a beard is going to make you look. Already, with such a short 
growth, you begin to look more than ever like a Man of God ! It sets 
off your eyes, which have a new fire in them these days." 

But they went further than that. They kept a kosher household, 
using food only in the Orthodox manner. They observed Shabbatk, 
the weekly holy day. Each Shabbath they went to the synagogue, 
Eliezer wearing the tallith, or prayer shawl, over his shoulders and 
the tefillin fastened to his arm and head. 

These were great concessions for them to make, considering their 
own personal convictions. Deborah had been brought up by her 
freethinking father in an atmosphere of books. She had great spirit 
uality, as she was to demonstrate in her life with Eliezer, but she had 
few conventional religious beliefs. She had studied the philosophies 
and religions of many lands, and her own ideas were a synthesis of 
al of them. She hated narrowness and bigotry. 

Eliezer had been reared in an Orthodox home and had attended 
a rabbinical school, but Rabbi Blucker, then Deborah s father, then 


One Gold Louis 

Wittinsky, then Tshashnikov, then all the teachers and lecturers 
under whom he had studied in Paris had made him as un-Orthodox 
as Deborah herself. 

Yet here they were, after a few weeks in Jerusalem, looking and 
behaving as conventional Jews had looked and behaved for hundreds 
of years. 

It was Eliezer s habit, when he went through the streets on his 
way to the synagogue with the prayer shawl thrown over his 
shoulders as if it were a Roman toga, to greet other Jews he en 
countered with the salutation, "Shalom/* but those whom he met 
looked strangely at him and seldom replied. Small children would 
gather in crowds and taunt him, following him down the street and 
shouting at him, in mimicry and not in greeting, the word "shalom." 

Inside the synagogue he would follow the service carefully, but 
while the others prayed he would concentrate .on the Hebrew words 
being uttered. Thus began his philological search for words in the 
ancient tongue which might be incorporated into a modern, speak 
ing language. 

On the first Sabbath, as the service ended, a pious-looking old 
Ashkenazic Jew wearing long earlocks approached Eliezer and in 
vited him to accompany him home for the light repast which tradi 
tionally follows the Sabbath service. Eliezer accepted. 

When the old man s wife left the living room to get wine and 
cakes, the host surreptitiously drew from his pocket a cigarette case, 
opened it, and indicated that Eliezer should take one. To throw him 
off his guard, the host took one himself. 

Eliezer knew how rigid a rule it was that no one smoke on the 
Sabbath or on any other holy day. He realized he was being put to 
a test, so he bowed politely and with a smile said: 

"Many thanks, but I do not smoke at all." 

The old man s face lighted up as he put the cigarette case back 
into his pocket. He was satisfied, obviously, that this young man was 
one who really respected the Law. 

TJefore long Eliezer had new difficulties with Editor Fruinkin, 
whose Orthodox beliefs were outraged by some of the Ben Yehuda 
articles, yet he apparently did not want to lose the services of his in 
expensive young assistant. Finally a compromise was worked out. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Eliezer would start, under Frumkin s supervision, a monthly paper 
of his own. It would be called Mebasseret Zion (The Zion News), 
would be a supplement to Frumkin s own paper, and Eliezer would 
be listed as the "responsible editor." 

This was just the chance Ben Yehuda wanted. Now he would be 
able to argue, propagandize, exhort, and proselytize as he pleased, 
without having to convince anyone but his readers that his ideas 
were good. 

He ran through the seven filthy courtyards to tell Deborah the 
good news. 

Like Spinoza 


gave him a home-coming celebration which set many new records. 
One of the "attractions" was that the captured Hebrew commanders 
were led in chains behind Titus chariot. Later they were put to 
death in the Coliseum dungeons. 

But some Jews survived this worst of all pogroms and before long 
they began to drift back to Jerusalem, determined to die in the ruins 
of their holy city. Jews who remained abroad believed that there 
were certain long-range benefits to be derived from having prayers 
said for them on the spot where the Temple had stood, as long as 
they were not there to pray on the spot themselves, so they sent 
financial contributions to the handful of rabbis and pious Jews in 
Jerusalem in return for such prayers. 

After two thousand years this system still prevailed. 

Down through the ages the Jewish population of Jerusalem had 
continued to consist principally of a few thousand men and women 
engaged in what one Jewish historian has called "the business of 

^rJo one knew exactly how many Jews there were in Palestine when 
the Ben Yehudas arrived in the country. Some estimates said twenty- 


Tongue of the Prophets 

four thousand. Others placed the total as high as thirty thousand. 
Only about five hundred of them were "on the land." The majority 
of the rest lived in Jerusalem in varying degrees of poverty. 

Most of them spent their days in study and prayer, neither toiling 
nor spinning. They expected money for their sustenance to come 
from Jews abroad. Some were sincerely interested in things of the 
mind and the spirit. Others were merely idle and shiftless. But all 
were destitute. 

Money originally intended for the support of a few learned men 
and those engaged in religious studies gradually came to be used to 
support in comparative idleness a growing population of parasitical 

When sufficient funds from abroad were not forthcoming, "col 
lectors" were sent to Europe, often learned and generally clever 
men, who received one third of what they raised. Half of what was 
left went by custom to the rabbis, the pious scholars, and to the 
religious colleges; the other half (starting in about the thirteenth 
century) went to the poor. The distribution was made semi-annually. 
The entire system was called Halukkah, the Hebrew word for "dis 

It was a general practice for a Jewish immigrant not to take out 
Turkish citizenship but to retain the passport issued to him by the 
country in which he had been born, in order to have the protection 
of that country s diplomatic representatives in Jerusalem in case of 
trouble, and to have certain privileges accorded to foreigners over 
Turkish subjects, 

When the Ben Yehudas arrived in the Holy Land, the Sephardic 
Jews were the only ones, as a group, who were at all ambitious. 
Many of them actually saw nothing wrong with working for a living, 
even on the soil. They were also less pious, or less the victims of 
superstition, depending on the point of view. 

But the Sephardim were greatly outnumbered by the Ashkenazim, 
whose leaders were vehemently opposed to agriculture, referring to 
the tilling of the soil as a "vulgarity," 

Some of the more ambitious Ashkenazim augmented the chari 
table doles they received twice a year by carving small religious ob 
jects from wood and sending than to individuals abroad with a 


Like Spinoza 

letter signed by the woman of the household, saying that she was a 
devout Jew, a widow with seven dying children, and please would 
the recipient, as a good Jew himself, remit as substantial a sum as 
his means permitted in return for the "object." 

The Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews had no common language, 
and there was little social or intellectual intercourse between them. 

The Sephardim considered the Ashkenazim their inferiors, while 
the Ashkenazim looked on the Sephardim as lacking in piety. 

But there were even divisions among the Ashkenazim, for they 
had banded together in this time according to the countries from 
which they had come. There were bitter rivalries among German 
Jews, Russian Jews, and Jews from France and England. 

Many in these groups spoke, in addition to Yiddish, the languages 
of the countries of their origin, which made for further disunity. 

Out in the Diaspora there were similar rivalries. Jews in various 
European countries had separate organizations which raised the 
money that was sent to Jerusalem for distribution exclusively among 
those who had gone to Palestine from that country. 

The administrators of these funds in the Holy Land were often 
accused of living too well themselves on the money from abroad. 
The Jews of Jerusalem were, by and large, either antipathetic or 
openly hostile to these "foreigners." They resisted their efforts to 
raise the intellectual level and lower the mortality rate, accepting 
with grace only the alms they received. 

A few years before the Ben Yehudas arrival in Jerusalem three 
German Jews, visiting the country and seeing Jewish orphans grow 
ing up in the streets with no one showing any interest in them, de 
cided to found an orphan asylum. It took them ten years to collect 
the necessary money, overcome violent opposition, and get the in 
stitution opened. 

Stories like this depressed Eliezer. The situation obviously was 
much worse than he had ever dreamed it might be. 

Yet knowing all these things made him admire for the rest of his 
life the courage of a man who paid him a formal call not many 
vyreeks after his arrival. The visitor introduced himself as Nissim 
Behar and said he was in charge of the educational activities of the 
Alliance Israelite Universelle. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

He had been empowered to open a new school for boys and would 
Mr. Ben Yehuda accept a position on the teaching staff? 

"I could do so only on one condition, which I am sure you will not 
accept. I must be free to teach in Hebrew." 

"That is exactly why I have come to you. I wish you to teach 

When Eliezer told Deborah about the offer and that he would re 
ceive fifty gold francs per month (about eight dollars) for teaching 
six hours a day, six days a week, she said shyly: 

"Fate is being very kind to us, Eliezer. This has happened just at 
the right time, because . . ." 

As she hesitated Eliezer looked into her eyes just as so many sensi 
tive young husbands before him had looked into the eyes of their 
wives and learned, before any words were spoken, that the miracle 
of creation was occurring again. 

They sat up late that night talking. Eliezer insisted that with the 
increased income they might now find a better place for the child to 
be born. 

"Deborah, you are going to be the first Hebrew mother in nearly 
two thousand years," he said, and in his eyes there was a faraway 
mystical look. "Our child will be the first infant in all these centuries 
who will come into the world hearing nothing but the beauty of our 
own ancient language. You must take a solemn pledge right now, 
Deborah, that you will make this dream of mine come true. Never 
must the child hear any words but Hebrew ! 

"Our home must be a Hebrew sanctuary where no one speaks 
anything else. Whoever crosses our threshold must agree to do so 
with Hebrew words on his lips. Until our crusade finds popular 
favor, we must isolate our young one from the contamination of the 
languages and dialects of the Diaspora. This is even more important 
than all the writing and teaching I shall be doing, for by this ex 
ample we may be able to inflame the Jewish world with our idea." 

His speech depressed Deborah. This was what she often called his 
"holy stubbornness." She had been studying Hebrew diligently, but 
there were few people, even here in Jerusalem, with whom she could 
speak the language except her own husband, and he was away from 
home most of the time. 


Like Spinoza 

Still, knowing how much it meant to him, she took the oath he 
demanded of her. 

As the Hebrew classes got under way in the Alliance school, the 
hostility of the Jewish population increased. Eliezer was often stoned 
on his way to the classroom. From all sides he heard the argument 
that it was sacrilege for anyone even to dream of using the holy 
language for everyday speech. They had gotten along all right all 
these centuries with their various dialects; why change now? 

Often, while he tried to conduct classes, groups of teen-age boys 
would stand outside the windows, either looking in with profound 
curiosity, or reflecting their parents 5 hostility by catcalling and jeer- 


Sometimes Eliezer would go out and try to make friends with these 
boys. He succeeded with one of them, Abraham Shalom Yahuda, 
who developed into an exceptional student. Years later he took his 
teacher s advice and went to Europe to continue his education, be 
came a celebrated Orientalist and Hebrew scholar, helped with the 
financing of the Ben Yehuda dictionary, and in 1915 received an 
appointment to the chair of Semitic languages in a government 
university in Spain, thus becoming the first Jew since the wholesale 
expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 to receive a government ap 

It was a long time after Eliezer began teaching in the Alliance 
school that he heard something which made him admire Nissim 
Behar even more. The Alliance Israelite in Paris had made no pro 
vision in its budget for a Hebrew teacher. Behar had "found 39 the 
necessary fifty francs per month to pay Eliezer by cutting twenty-five 
francs off the salary of each of two instructors in religion. 

Yet one of the first articles Ben Yehuda wrote for his own monthly 
paper was an attack on Alliance Israelite Universelle for opposing 
the immigration of Russian and Rumanian Jews to Palestine. This 
was the organization which was paying his salary, yet that did not 
influence him. For the next forty years he would be rebelling, on 
ideological grounds, against even those to whom he had to look for 
financial support. 

One of the first friends Eliezer made in Jerusalem was Jehiel 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Michael Pines, who represented the Montefiore Memorial Founda 
tion and was therefore the spokesman for British Jewry. 

He invited the Ben Yehudas to be his guests over the holidays 
known as the Feast of the Tabernacles. Pines knew some Hebrew, 
and Eliezer impressed him so much that he agreed to a pact; at least 
with their intimate friends and family they would henceforth speak 
only Hebrew. 

The Ben Yehudas were elated over this accomplishment, for they 
had been told that Pines was one of the most influential Jews in 
Palestine, but the pact was soon broken. Somehow the gossips of 
Jerusalem heard about it and subjected Pines to such ridicule that 
he reverted to the use of Yiddish except when talking to the Ben 

It was during these same holidays that Frumkin took Eliezer to 
pay a call on the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. 

Despite Eliezer s own un-Orthodox ideas, he was so impressed by 
the religious leader that he later wrote this glowing description of 

"He was a beautiful oriental figure. He looked like one of our 
ancient ancestors, as we like to imagine that they looked. He was 
tall, erect, and handsome, with noble features and a long beard. He 
was beautifully dressed in embroidered robes with a silver necklace 
and a silk hat decorated with a piece of cloth embroidered in silver." 

About this time the Ben Yehudas moved from the tenement near 
the Wailing Wall to a still modest but more comfortable dwelling 
close to the Mosque of Omar. There Deborah spent every minute of 
her spare time studying the only language which, by her husband s 
order, she was going to be allowed to speak to her child. 

One day when Deborah and Eliezer were walking down one of 
Jerusalem s narrow streets, talking in Hebrew, a man stopped them* 
Tugging at the young journalist s sleeve, he asked i0 Yiddish: 

"Excuse me, sir. That language you two talk. What is it?" 

"Hebrew," Eliezer replied. 

"Hebrew ! But people don t speak Hebrew. It s a dead language !" 

"You are wrong, my friend," Eliezer replied with fervor. "I am 
alive. My wife is alive. We speak Hebrew. Therefore, Hebrew is 


Like Spinoza 

Thus in many small ways he was beginning to mix the mortar of 
his dream with the solid stones of reality. 

Meanwhile Deborah grew happy as she felt the child she was 
carrying commence to stir within her. But Eliezer s condition raised 
doubts in her mind that there would ever be another. His schedule 
of teaching and writing left him little time for sleep. His face was 
white most of the time. He coughed incessantly. A doctor whom she 
had insisted he see flatly ordered him to cut out at least half of his 


But Eliezer was stubborn. Deborah knew it, even if the doctor did 
not. Eliezer argued that his own health was unimportant. He must 
work at top speed now, partly because the two salaries he received 
were essential if the "first Hebrew child" were to be brought into 
the world in decent style. f 

Also, he could now begin to see his own influence growing. The 

enrollment in his Hebrew classes increased week by week. Stones 

were still thrown at him, and the extremists swore they would never 

give up their fight against his "wild ideas," but he was sure he had 

one foot planted on the rough road he had chosen. 


Twice Born 


months after the Ben Yehudas had arrived in Jerusalem, Eliezer was 
sitting at a desk in the bare room which Deborah euphemistically 
called his "study," working on a new appeal to the Jews of the world. 
Suddenly his wife burst into the room. 

"Eliezer, come quickly. There are many people outside the house. 
They are shouting your name and calling for you in Hebrew. But I 
am not sure that you should go. They may mean harm to you 1" 

Eliezer put down his pen and started for the door. 

"If they speak in Hebrew they must be friends/* 

As Ben Yehuda opened the door there was a cheer from several 
dozen young men and women who clustered around Mm. They 
were a ragged-looking lot. All wore European clothes. Ben ^ Yehuda 
was perplexed until one, acting as spokesman, began an informal 

"Master, we have followed you. We have come from far places to 
be your disciples. We have journeyed for weeks from southern Rus 
sia, Poland, Rumania, Galicia, yes, even from your native Lithuania* 

"We are most of us university students. We read your appeal in 
the Viennese paper Hashahar, and it struck a spark in us* We have 


Twice Born 

left everything behind to come and settle in Palestine and be the 
first to help in the rebirth of the Jewish state. 

"So here we are, volunteers in your army. We now await your 
commands !" 

Eliezer clutched at Deborah s arm for support. He closed his eyes 
for a moment and then opened them slowly to look again and be 
sure he was not having a hallucination. What were these words he 
had heard? "Master . . . volunteers . . . your army!" 

Their spokesman added: 

"We have just walked the forty miles from Jaffa to Jerusalem and 
we are very tired. It has taken us weeks to get here. Some have 
been on the way for more than a month. Could we " 

It was Deborah who finally motioned them to come in. 

After Ben Yehuda had regained his composure he asked them 
questions, and their story came tumbling out. 

They were all young idealists whose decisions had been strength 
ened by a fresh wave of pogroms sweeping eastern and central 
Europe. Most of them were young, the oldest being the age of Ben 
Yehuda himself. Many were able to carry on a conversation in 
Hebrew. Those who did not know the language remained silent as 
a token of respect. 

They had taken a name for themselves. The Biluyim. Eliezer 
asked them to repeat the word. Then, half to himself, he said: 

"But that is not Hebrew, unless " 

Their leader laughed. 

"It is a word we have created, just as you shall have to create a 
great many words to make Hebrew a living, useful language. Our 
full name is Sons of Jacob, Come, Let Us Go! 3 We took the first 
letter of each of the Hebrew words b, i, /, u and made Bilu, and 
the plural, of course, is Biluyim." 

After half an hour of excited talk Ben Yehuda said to them : 

"We keep an Orthodox home here, for reasons which shall be ex 
plained to you in due course. This is Passover eve, as all of you know. 
Tonight, according to ancient Jewish custom, our table is already 
laid for the feast of Seder and also, according to the law, we shall 
bid welcome to all Jews who have no place else to go." 

Then Eliezer smiled. 

Tongue of the Prophets 

"Of course we did not expect an army ! Yet my good Deborah 
will find a way to provide enough food and you shall all be our 
guests. Meanwhile, we have another problem. A few of you can re 
main the night with us, but our home is not like a hotel. We live 
modestly and and there is not much extra room. However, I have 
a few friends who will be very excited about your arrival. They will 
help out with the housing problem." 

That night one of the most impressive Seder ceremonies that 
Jerusalem had known in her entire long history took place in that 
modest house close by the Mosque of Omar. The three girls and 
several dozen young men who had come from such far places took 
their seats at the table in the semi-reclining position required by the 
Seder ritual, while the young schoolteacher-editor led them in the 
hour-long Passover ceremony which Jews everywhere have observed 
for so many hundreds of years. 

The completion of the service was a signal for a great babble of 
voices. Each of the guests was eager to tell the story of his own 
private exodus. Deborah said at one point that they reminded her 
of some geysers she had once seen which bubbled incessantly, never 

Ben Yehuda listened and was troubled. One fact emerged clearly 
from their recitals. The older Jews of Europe were going to fight a 
stubborn battle to prevent their young from migrating. There was 
not one in the room who had not had a fight to leave. All had had 
reproaches heaped on their heads. All had h^d to exert stubborn will 
power to get away> Only the very strong had been able to break the 
bonds which tied them to the past; in many cases to the ghettos of 
the Diaspora. Ben Yehuda knew that they were tenacious bonds 
and not easily severed. All the arguments which he had heard so 
often had been used against these young idealists. 

Even the new wave of persecutions had not opened the eyes of 
the older generation. Most of them were determined to die, if fate 
and the anti-Semites willed it, in surroundings which were familiar. 
They rationalized their *timidity about embarking on bold adven 

Yet this handful of pilgrims was proof that there were a few who 
dared. Ben Yehuda looked 1 around at those who had succeeded in 


Twice Born 

breaking away and was encouraged. They had intelligent faces, and 
the fire of their enthusiasm lighted their eyes, 

It was a small army with which to commence a great battle, but 
they would make good shock troops if he himself only retained the 
strength to lead them. But every time he coughed, which now was 
frequently, he wondered how much longer he would be able to carry 

So they talked and talked. Those who were to stay in the Ben 
Yehuda home, tired though they were, talked until the gray light of 
morning began to filter through the windows. It was Deborah who 
finally forced them to stop, saying: 

"We shall have an army of invalids, led by a corpse, if you and 
my husband do not get some rest." 

The next day Ben Yehuda took his followers on a tour of the Holy 
City. He showed the eager young people all the points of interest, 
starting with the Wailing Wall, an eternal witness of ancient Hebrew 
glory; the valley known as Gehenna, or Gehinnom, where children 
in the dim past were brought as sacrifices to the heathen fire-god 
called Moloch; the golden gate through which Jews are taught that 
the Messiah will pass on his triumphal arrival; the well in which the 
cohen gadol, the high priest, drowned himself after throwing the key 
to the Holy Temple up to heaven during one of the sieges of Jeru 
salem; the tomb of Absalom, King David s favorite but rebellious 
son; Jeremiah s cave, the Mount of Olives, and the Temple area. 

But the holiday spirit of Passover Week soon ended. Now they 
had to face cold reality and practical problems. Few of them had 
any money, and, as Ben Yehuda sadly pointed out to them, idealism 
does not fill empty stomachs. 

A meeting was therefore held, attended not only by the new ar 
rivals but also by some of Ben Yehuda s close friends. The problem 
of each individual was taken up separately. Some had special talents 
which could immediately be., put to use to enable them to earn a 
livelihood. For example, one of the young men, David Idelovitch, 
who had come from Rumania and would become an outstanding 
Hebrew teacher, was given employment at once in a workshop 
where knife blades were made. Jacob Shertok was put to work in a 
carpentry shop. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"I have a friend," Ben Yehuda announced, "who will give a job 
to one of you as a clerk in his grocery store. However, my friend is a 
great believer in reviving Hebrew as a spoken language and so there 
is one stipulation besides honesty. The clerk must agree that he will 
speak nothing but Hebrew to the customers. It is my friend s way of 
helping along my campaign*" 

That job was quickly accepted by one of the Hebrew-speaking 
youths, Judah Grazovski, who would later become famous under the 
name of Gur. 

The big problem, just as it was to be a problem more than half a 
century later, was in figuring out what to do with those whose ex 
perience had been in commercial fields. They had to be considered 
without professions, because there was already in Jerusalem a sur 
plus of merchants and shopkeepers. But a solution was found that 
day; the same one which would be arrived at several generations 
later. It was Ben Yehuda, then, who suggested the solution. 

"Some of you must learn to be farmers, an occupation few Jews 
in the world have been allowed to practice of late. If we are to make 
the land blossom again we must return to the soil. There is a group 
of German agriculturists located near Jaffa who will be glad to 
teach some of you. The life will be hard, but it will have its satisfac 
tions, for you will be helping to fulfill a great prophecy!" 

The meeting was concluded in a spirit of celebration. All of them 
gathered in a circle and sang the only Hebrew secular song then in 
existence, so far as any of them knew, the Hebrew poet Gordon s 
translation of one of Heine s poems set to music by Schubert, 

fhe second wave of mass immigration or diyah (the Hebrew 
word for "ascent") arrived several months later. But this one was 
different. Instead of penniless students, these were entire families; 
husbands, wives, and children of all ages. None was rich, but many 
came with substantial savings, Some of the men had owned their 
own businesses in various Russian cities. 

They landed at Jaffa and decided to remain there until they 
could purchase land on which they could learn to become farmers. 
It was Jaffa which almost defeated them. 

They rented quarters in primitive oriental homes (there were few 

Twice Born 

homes of any other kind those days in Jaffa) and tried to adapt 
themselves to a standard of living difficult for any European to 

As Eliezer and Deborah well knew from just one day in the sea 
port city, Jaffa was enough to discourage the hardiest soul. Even 
though some Arabs may have had immaculate homes, they were 
little interested in the cleanliness of their exterior surroundings. 
Accordingly the streets of Jaffa were always deep in filth. There 
were no sewers. The streets were unpaved. Rain water and slops 
stood stagnant in the thoroughfares, with the heat of the sun making 
the stench almost unbearable. Flies and mosquitoes thrived in this 
situation; there were clouds of them everywhere. Stray cats and dogs 
poked their noses into the refuse which littered the city. Malaria, 
typhus, and typhoid were as common as the common cold. The 
mortality rate was so high that only the rabbit-like breeding of the 
Arabs kept the population from being wiped out. Predatory tra 
choma caused crossed eyes and blindness. There were few inhabit* 
ants at any given time not suffering from mild or serious skin 
diseases, all of them infectious. 

This was the city in which the second wave of immigrants tem 
porarily settled. There were no schools for the children. There was 
neither rest nor peace for the women. 

Each day the men went off on expeditions into the countryside to 
look for land for the settlement they wished to establish. They would 
come home each night and report that as yet they had had no suc 
cess in their search, but when their wives started pleading, they 
would paint rosy pictures of the paradise they were someday going 
to create somewhere out there on the brown desert sands. The 
women grew tired of the promise, but most of them tried to bear 
their difficulties with courage and patience. 

So they stayed, most of them, and some of the children died of 
disease, and some of the women went almost insane. 

Ben Yehuda heard about the group and sent words of encourage 
ment. These people, also, were recruits in his army. His great regret 
was that he was powerless to help them. 

About this time, in the attic of a house on the outskirts of Jeru 
salem^ Eliezer presided over a meeting of a small group of the intel- 


Tongue of the Prophets 

lectuals of Jerusalem. The purpose was to discuss ways and means of 
reviving Hebrew. 

That night those present organized themselves into what they 
called "The Army of the Defenders of the Language" and signed a 
pact which read: 

"The members residing in the Land of Israel will speak to each 
other in Hebrew, in society, in meeting places, and in the streets and 
market places, and shall not be ashamed. They will make it a point 
to teach their sons and daughters and the rest of their household this 

"The members will watch in the streets and the market places 
over the Hebrew speech, and when they hear adults speaking Rus 
sian, French, Yiddish, English, Spanish, Arabic, or any other 
language, they will not spare a remark even to the eldest amongst 
them, saying: 

" Aren t you ashamed of yourselves ! " 

It was almost a lifetime later, however, before it did finally be 
come "shameful" to speak a foreign language in a public place in 
Israel. That this finally did happen was due principally to the efforts 
of the group of young intellectuals who met that night in that attic 
on the edge of Jerusalem in secret conclave. 

Soon after that meeting Eliezer had a more personal problem to 
deal with. 

Deborah s time was approaching. He knew she was lonely; that 
she both needed and wanted her mother. That being impossible, 
Eliezer tried to be husband and mother too. 

One request Deborah made which Eliezer was not able to satisfy 
was for a spring bed on which her baby might be born. She com 
plained that the rope bed, which was all they had been able to 
afford, was impossibly uncomfortable. Eliezer tried to borrow a 
better bed or to get one on credit. Both attempts were unsuccessful. 

Then early one morning 5n the month of Ab> in, the year 1882, it 
happened. The child was a boy. 

True to her promise, the first word the mother spoke to her infant 
after it had been placed in her arms was a Hebrew word : 

"YaUK [My child] !" 

Thus Deborah Yonas Ben Yehuda, daughter of a distiller in 


Twice Born 

Glubokiah, became, as her husband always expressed it, "the first 
Hebrew mother in nearly two thousand years" ; the first woman in 
so long a time to address her child in the biblical language. 

But the agreement which Deborah had made with her husband 
raised immediate complications which had not occurred to them in 

At the bedside when the child was born was Mrs. Pines, wife of 
the leader of the British Jewish colony, who would have remained 
constantly at the young mother s side except that she did not speak 
Hebrew, and while she and the baby were in the same room Eliezer 
insisted that she not utter a word. There were many things a bedside 
companion, such as Mrs. Pines was trying to be, needed to ask and 
to say at such a time which were difficult to express in sign language. 

The situation was saved, however, when the wife of Rabbi Hayim 
Hirschenson appeared. She did speak Hebrew and so took immediate 
charge. For weeks after the birth she neglected her own family to 
run the Ben Yehuda menage. 

The young mother had three other intimate friends : Hannah, a 
tea vendor; Sheynah Malkah, a strange little woman who spent her 
entire time looking for some way to accomplish her day s mitzvah, or 
good deed, and a Sephardic Jewess named Simha, a childless widow. 

All three came on the run to offer their congratulations, but Ben 
Yehuda stood at the door and before he would allow any of them to 
enter put them through a questionnaire about their linguistic abili 

It turned out that Sheynah Malkah spoke only Yiddish. Ben 
Yehuda admitted her with the positive understanding that while in 
the birth chamber she was not to utter a sound. 

The other two women contended that they knew "a little" 
Hebrew. The husband passed them. 

When Simha, the childless widow, learned that the baby was a 
boy she literally went into a dance of joy by the side of Deborah s 
bed, for Sephardic Jews, along with most oriental peoples, have little 
respect for female infants. 

When her dance was concluded she took the baby from his 
mother s arms, put him into the bosom of her loose-fitting oriental 
gown, and finally pulled him out through one of the wide sleeves. As 


Tongue of the Prophets 

she performed this odd ritual, to the delight of all present except the 
father and mother, she shouted in Hebrew : 

"Now I am not childless anymore! Now I have a son!" 

Her actions were based on an old Spanish- Jewish belief that if a 
childless woman performs this rite with a newborn baby she is 
automatically childless no longer but shares in the maternity of the 
actual mother. 

The disappearance-into-the-bosom-discovery-in-the-sleeve per 
formance so intrigued the tea vendor, Hannah, that she insisted on 
doing it also. At the conclusion of her manipulations she kissed the 
child and affectionately whispered the word "Yaldi," adding in 
Hebrew, "Ancl now it is partly my child too !" 

By frantic signs Sheynah Malkah indicated that she also wanted 
to share in the maternity. Deborah nodded but put a finger to her 
lips as a warning that the woman must not give in to a temptation 
to try to talk to the child, even though by her inability to say the 
magic words she might be cheated out of synthetic motherhood. 

Always after that day Sheynah Malkah was known in the Ben 
Yehuda household as the "dumb godmother." 

Before many hours had passed word spread through Jerusalem 
that the strange young schoolteacher-editor and his wife had had a 
baby and that the father had imposed some sort of weird language 
prohibition. As a result, people came from all parts of the city to 
verify the report themselves. 

One of Ben Yehuda s acquaintances remarked to him: 

"If the child is to know nothing but Hebrew, it is to be hoped that 
he will not grow up speaking stupid things !" 

Others made comments which were neither so subtle nor so re 

There was excitement all day long in the small house near the 
Mosque of Omar. By custom Ben Yehuda provided wine for his 
guests, which had something to do with how loudly they sang and 
how long they stayed. Oriental Jewish musicians sat on the floor 
playing primitive guitars and tambourines. 

There was excitement enough without the additional news which 
a messenger brought late in the afternoon. It was a telegram for Ben 
Yehuda from Jaffa. 


Twice Born 

His friends who had come in the second small wave of immigra 
tion wished him to be one of the first to know that they finally had 
found a piece of land. It was located one and a half hours by horse 
back ride to the south of Jaffa. 

They already had tents pitched and had moved their families and 
possessions out of the filth of Jaffa. 

This would be the first real agricultural settlement of the New 
Israel ! True, there was the colony of Petach Tikvah ( Gate of Hope) 
which had been founded in 1878 and would someday be known as 
"the mother of all Jewish colonies/ 3 but it was made up of Jewish 
businessmen from Jerusalem and others who were not halutzim, the 
term used for pioneers who came from far places expressly to settle 
on the land. There was also Mikveh Israel, which had been founded 
by the doctor Eliezer had consulted in Paris, but that, also, was not 
a really pioneering place. 

The telegram said they were planning a formal opening and dedi 
cation. If Ben Yehuda left Jerusalem at sundown he could get there 
in time. He must come, because (as the telegram expressed it) this 
was his "baby," his first-born agricultural child. They were his fol 
lowers and they intended to help him, not only with resettlement of 
the land, but also with his Hebrew campaign. This would be a 
Hebrew, not a Yiddish colony. They had suffered greatly in Jaffa. 
This was the hour of their redemption. Ben Yehuda must come and 
help them celebrate. 

The young father s head was in a whirl. The father of two new 
born children the same day! As he pushed his way into his own 
home he found a violent argument under way. They were discussing 
the name of his son. 

He and Deborah had decided long before this day that if the 
child were a boy he would be called Ittamar. It was a good Hebrew 
word meaning "island of palms." They liked its sound. 

But the friends and neighbors who had gathered were not in 
agreement. Ittamar? Unthinkable! Did not Ben Yehuda know the 
old rule, the old custom? The first-born, if a boy, must always be 
called Ben Zion, Son of Zion. 

Eliezer listened for a few moments to the loud voices and then 
decided to turn the conversation by reading the telegram. But there 


Tongue of the Prophets 

was one sentence in the message which caused trouble for Eliezer 
and Deborah. It said the name of the new colony, chosen by the 
settlers, was Rishon Le Zion, "First in Zion." 

That revived the controversy about a name for the infant which 
now lay sleeping in its mother s arms. 

"Surely/ 3 said one of the guests, "you can see now that your son 
cannot possibly be called by that other name. The colony is to be 
known as Rishon Le Zion, and your child must naturally be, also, 
the Son of Zion. If you wish to win favor among our people in 
Jerusalem, Ben Yehuda, you will not defy custom at a time like 

Ben Yehuda s strong feeling of independence was in conflict with 
his desire to win followers. It might seem to others a petty matter. 
Yet to him it was a major issue. 

The decision was finally made by the young woman lying on the 
bed, who so passionately hated conflict and yet was to witness and 
take part in so much conflict before her death. 

With a smile that was tinged with both sadness and understand 
ing she took Eliezer s hand and affectionately said: 

"Haveevee, I think it is wise that our child be known as Ben Zion 
Ben Yehuda. I also think it will be well for you to take the evening 
carriage to Jaffa, to be present at the birth of your other child." 

Then she closed her eyes and went to sleep. 


One Tree 


him from Jerusalem were met at Jaffa by some of the settlers. To 
gether they covered the last fifteen miles, riding on the backs of 
horses and small donkeys. 

The terrain over which they traveled was nothing to excite a 
farmer of any nationality. The ground undulated and was bare. The 
only vegetation was cactus and desert shrubs. It was cause for com 
ment if anyone saw a tree. 

Several times they passed Arab villages which did little to relieve 
the drabness of the landscape. 

Suddenly one of the guides reined in his horse, pointed excitedly 
toward the horizon, and exclaimed: 

Behold ! There is our settlement ! This is our land, from here on ! 
Welcome to Rishon Le Zion !" 

As they approached they saw a line of small tents such as those in 
which Bedouin tribesmen live. There was nothing else to break the 
dreary monotony of brown sand except a single tree on a small hill- 
Ben Yehuda was hot and tired. It had been a difficult journey for 
a man in his physical condition. Besides, he had had no sleep last 
night in the carriage from Jerusalem and little the night before be- 


Tongue of the Prophets 

cause of the birth of his son. As soon as they had tethered their ani 
mals he asked if someone could get him a glass of water. 

This request brought a response first of embarrassment and then 
of laughter. 

"You forget, sir, that you are in Rishon Le Zidn and not back in 
Jerusalem ! We have only just pitched our tents. We have not yet 
had time to dig for water. But we can offer you wine. It is better that 
we have wine, for you must drink a toast with us to our success!" 

From one of the tents someone produced a flagon and glasses. 
During the simple dedication ceremony many toasts were drunk; to 
Ben Yehuda, to the New Israel, to Rishon Le Zion and its founders, 
and to the other twin, Ben Zion Ben Yehuda. 

Ben Yehuda was perplexed that the only immigrants he saw were 
men. But it developed that he had misunderstood the telegram. The 
women and children were still in Jaffa and would remain there un 
til several cisterns had been dug, until the men had gathered a 
mountain of dead cactus branches for firewood, and until they had 
built ovens of stone and tin for communal baking. 

As proof to Ben Yehuda that they meant to keep the promise they 
had made to him, practically all the conversation that day was car 
ried on in Hebrew, except when someone stumbled for a word which 
did not exist in the ancient language and had to use its Yiddish or 
Russian equivalent. 

Each time they raised their glasses they used the Hebrew expres 
sion "Lehayim!" meaning "Here s to life!" the traditional Hebrew 

Just before the men from Jerusalem left on their long homeward 
journey Ben Yehuda said: 

"Your names will all be written in history; in the new history of 
an old people. 

**I know you will have your heartaches and your troubles. Weak 
men among you will wish to give up. Even the strong will get dis 
couraged. It is not an easy fight any of us is facing. We have many 
enemies, but nature is not among them. Always remember that na 
ture is not to be defeated or conquered. She is only to be understood 
and tamed and put to use. This sandy soU, if you treat it in a right 
manager, will blossom for you as it once did for our ancestors. 


One Tree 

"And the hills of Judea before long will be echoing with the deep, 
rich sounds of the Hebrew tongue again. 

"And the hills of Judea will begin to welcome back more and 
more returning sons. 

"And someday there will be peace throughout the Promised Land 
and a good life for all of our people who hunger and thirst for sha- 

"And so I leave you with my blessing and great good wishes. 

"To the first settlers, to the people of Rishon Le Zion, lehayim!" 

One day Eliezer Ben Yehuda presented himself at the Russian 
consulate in Jerusalem and announced to the doorman that he 
wished to see one of the officials on an important matter. 

The doorman ushered him into an office at the end of a long cor 
ridor. Behind a large desk sat a man with a finely chiseled face and 
with a beard much bushier and more handsome than the one his 
visitor wore. 

"And what may I do for you, sir?" he inquired pleasantly in well- 
polished, precise Russian. 

"I have come to renounce my Russian citizenship and turn in a 
passport for which I no longer have any use," Eliezer announced in 
a determined tone as he placed the passport bearing the Czar s coat 
of arms on the desk. 

"This is a rather unusual procedure, Mr. Mr. " 

"The name is Ben Yehuda. Eliezer Ben Yehuda." 

"You say your name is Ben Yehuda? That is not the name in this 
passport. This belongs to a Mr. Elyanof ." The official looked up sus 
piciously at his visitor. "This is all rather mysterious." 

"Not at all," Eliezer replied. "Elyanof was my name before I left 
Russia. I have changed it now. That is one reason I wish to get rid 
of this passport. When I get one here it will be in the name Ben Ye 

The official looked startled. Then Eliezer continued: 

"From now on I shall consider myself a citizen of the Land of 

"Palestine, you mean." 

"I said the Land of Israel." 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"I think you speak of a country which does not exist. You will 
have difficulty getting a passport issued by a state called Israel!" 

"That is beside the point. I no longer consider myself a Russian 
subject and am announcing it to you officially at this time." 

At that point Eliezer turned on his heel and started from the 
room, but before he reached the door the man behind the desk 
stopped him, saying: 

"You might be interested to know that we have been holding a 
letter here for you." 

As he spoke the official walked forward with a long white en 
velope in his outstretched hand. 

Eliezer took it, glanced at the address, and then handed it back. 

"This letter is addressed to Eliezer Elyanof. As that is no longer 
my name, I could not possibly accept a letter that does not belong to 

A smile spread across the official s face. 

"I assume, then, that you wish me to have the letter returned to 
the expediter, who, in case you did not notice, is a man named Leib 
Perlman, who lives in the country of the Czar at a place called 
Luzhky. Do you know who this Leib Perlman is?" 

"I think he is my youngest brother." 

The official took no trouble to hide his astonishment. 

"You think? What do you mean, you think? Is your family so 
large that you do not even know the names of all your brothers?" 

"Yes, my family is very large," Eliezer said gravely. "My family is 
now the whole of the people of Israel, and all of its sons are my 

"That is a very fine speech, Mr. Elyanof pardon Mr, Ben, Ye 
huda. But if it does not annoy you, may I ask if by any chance you 
know my sister? I had a sister once who lived many years ago in this 
same village from which you apparently came." 

Eliezer unbent a little and replied: 

"I lived there only as a boy. I am afraid I would not know your 

"That is too bad, because you are the first one I have ever met 
who came from Luzhky. I have often wondered about my sister; 


One Tree 

whether she is still alive; whether she has ever married. She had a 
lovely name. They called her Feygaleh." 

In the split second it took the official to say the name, eight years 
suddenly dropped away for Eliezer. His mind now was back in 
Luzhky the last time he had seen his mother, when he was on his 
way to high school in Diinaburg. 

Eliezer held onto the desk for support. "Feygaleh is my mother. 
She had a brother. I even remember his name. It was Leib Beer. She 
often told us about him. When he was only seven he was kidnaped 
by the Cossacks and taken away for the army. She never heard from 
him again. Would that What is your name, sir?" 

Without replying the older man suddenly threw his arms around 
his slim young visitor and embraced him as a father might a son he 
had not seen in years. There were tears in his eyes when he finally 
backed away and looked Eliezer over from head to foot. 

"So ! So you are my nephew then. You are dear Feygaleh s boy 
and I am your uncle. How strange a world in which we live ! And to 
think that we meet in this far-off place, Jerusalem !" 

For the next quarter hour they sat on opposite sides of a table 
while the uncle- gave the nephew a brief resume of his life. It was 
true that at the age of seven, as Feygaleh had told her children and 
anyone else who would listen, he had been kidnaped. His captors 
took him to Siberia and when he was old enough to carry a rifle put 
him in the Czar s army. His teachers converted him to Christianity, 
and he took the name of Davidson, having forgotten what his own 
family name was, but remembering that his father s first name had 
been David. 

Before the session was over the uncle picked up the envelope 
again. With a smile he slit it and pulled out a sheet of paper and a 
smaller envelope. 

The sheet of paper was addressed to Eliezer. It had been dictated 
by his mother, who still did not know how to read or write, to her 
youngest son, Leib. In it, besides several personal messages to Eliezer, 
she said: 

"I am enclosing an envelope addressed to Leib Beer. You may re 
member, Eliezer, that I often spoke about him. He was my favorite 
brother who was kidnaped by the Cossacks when he was only seven. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

But just recently I have been talking with a woman who passed 
through Luzhky, and she said she had reason to believe that your 
uncle is still alive and is employed by the Russian consulate in Jeru 
salem, where you now are. Would you try to find him and give him 
the enclosed letter? 5 


Miracle of the Rain 


the point of dissociation. It had been inevitable to Deborah from the 
start. The younger man was far too radical for the older. On Eli- 
ezer s side, he desperately wanted independence. His dream was to 
edit a sizable daily paper of his own, "as attractive in appearance as 
Le Figaro, the Paris daily." 

He took his first step in this direction by resigning as the "respon 
sible editor" of the monthly supplement. His next problem was to 
get a license from the Turkish government to start a paper of his 
own. But he found that it took knowing the right people in govern 
ment circles, knowing which ones to bribe, and then much waiting. 
Ben Yehuda was not a patient waiter. 

A solution was suggested by Rabbi Hayim Hirschenson, whose 
daughter a generation later would become well known as the wife of 
Dr. David de Sola Pool, Chief Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese 
congregation of America. Rabbi Hirschenson possessed such a license 
as Eliezer needed. It permitted the bearer to put out a weekly paper 
called Hatzebi (The Deer) . If Eliezer wished, the rabbi would be 
glad to rent him the permit. 

That night Eliezer discussed it excitedly with Deborah. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"Just think, my deary in a few weeks I may be a free and inde 
pendent editor, able to express what I please, how I please, and 
when I please !" 

"But, Haveevee, how do you feel about the name, the Deer? It 
seems rather an odd name for a paper of yours! 3 

"In a way it is a ridiculous name, except that in the Book of Dan 
iel there is a reference to Eretz Hatzebi, which has been translated 
figuratively to mean Israel, Glorious Land/ But Hatzebi does not 
explain in any way what the paper will stand for. There is nothing 
about a deer which is even symbolic of what my paper will be !" 

"That is not quite correct, Haveevee. A deer is beautiful and your 
paper will be beautiful, I know. Remember what you have always 
said about wanting a paper that looks like Le Figaro?" 

"Well, we might as well get reconciled to it, because the Deer it 
is going to* be. Anyway, I now have a more pressing problem. I need 
money, desperately this time." 

"I wish, Haveevee, I could find something else to take to the 
pawnbroker, but I do not have a single piece of jewelry left, and 
most of the clothes I brought with me have found their way to the 
same place. Do you have any ideas where " 

"Yes, I am going to talk tomorrow to Hayim Calmi, the French 
teacher at the Alliance school." 

The next day Mr. Calmi seemed as startled as if someone had 
asked him for a million sovereigns when Eliezer said quietly to him: 

"I am trying to start a newspaper, Calmi, and I need one gold 
piece to finance it. Could you possibly loan me a single gold piece for 
a short time?" 

"Start a newspaper on such a sum as that? Are you mad, man? 
You know a great deal, I am sure, from bitter experience, about 
making money stretch a long way. Anyone who teaches school for a 
living knows that. But how can you start a newspaper with sucK 
small capital?" 

Ben Yehuda did not convince Calmi that day that it could be 
done, but he got the gold coin, half a napoleon, worth in American 
money about $2.50. 

He also got this parting word from the teacher: 

"There is, as you may know, an old Jewish superstition which 


Miracle of the Rain 

says that if you dress a child in borrowed clothes when it is very 
young, the child will thus be protected from the evil eye. And so, 
good luck to your third child, the Deer! 33 

Rabbi Hirschenson came to the rescue a second time by introduc 
ing Eliezer to the owner of a small print shop located in the cellar of 
his home in the old quarter of the city. 

There were no typesetting machines in Jerusalem at that time; it 
was necessary to add one letter of type to the next, painfully, slowly, 
by hand. The printers were not Hebrew scholars. They made so 
many mistakes that finally Eliezer, in addition to writing all the arti 
cles, actually set them into type himself. It was a tedious job for one 
so inexperienced. The cellar was lit by a single kerosene lamp. The 
young editor s eyes burned with the strain on them. Because of his 
ambition to make the Deer attractive to look at, as much like Le 
Figaro as possible, Eliezer also arranged the type in the steel forms; 
"made up the paper," as the printers put it. In addition he helped 
with the proofreading, anxious that there should be no errors. Mean 
while he tried to teach the printers a few essentials of Hebrew so that 
eventually he would not have to do so much of the work himself. 

The Deer was to be dated Friday, in order that the readers would 
be able to enjoy it over the Saturday holiday. There was only one 
mail a day out of Jerusalem. It left early in the morning. If the pa 
pers missed that mail they would lie over in the post office until after 
the week end. 

The first issue, just a few hundred copies, finished rolling off the 
press at midnight Thursday. As soon as the ink had sufficiently dried 
Eliezer took the bundle under his arm and ran the mile and a half 
from the shop through the dark streets to his home, lighting his way 
with a lantern containing a candle. There Deborah was waiting for 

"How does it look, Haveevee? I can hardly wait to see!" 

"You must wait, my dear. We shall look at it later. First help me 
quickly to fold them, get them ready for the mail, put on the stamps. 
We do not have a minute to lose if we are going to catch the morn 
ing post." 

So all night long they folded, wrote addresses, and licked stamps. 

When they came to the last operation Eliezer announced: 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"Because you are the careful member of the family, my dear, 
starting tonight you are responsible for this part of the work. It is 
most important because I am told that under Turkish law there is a 
fine of half a Turkish pound for each piece of mail which is posted 
without a stamp. And you know what a fine like that would do to 

The first issue of the Deer came out on the fifth day of the month 
of Heshvan in 1884. It consisted of a single piece of paper folded to 
make four pages, five by nine inches, smaller than the ordinary busi 
ness letterhead. Although the editors of Le Figaro, had they seen it, 
might not have noticed much resemblance to their own paper, when 
Eliezer came home from the post office and sank exhausted on a 
couch, Deborah said: 

"You have a right to be very proud, Haveevee. I have been read 
ing every word of it several times. Just wait until the letters start 
pouring in !" 

Eliezer s answer was to cough deeply several times and rub his 
hands over his burning eyes. 

The reaction of the Jews of Palestine to this first real European- 
type Hebrew newspaper was at least not apathetic. Everyone ad 
mitted there was a great deal of news packed into its four pages. But 
they objected to the way this Ben Yehuda wrote. Instead of the pom 
pous style of the scholars, who often copied whole sentences out of 
the Talmud, this man wrote simply, in conversational style. Many 
complained that he did not write "the language of the angels and 
the prophets/ 5 

They were also violently antagonized by what he said. Who was 
this young upstart who defied all conventions? He was worse than a 
gay (a non-Jew), for he had been brought up in the faith and 
should know better. What did he mean by arguing for the use of He 
brew? Hebrew was to pray in. God would be greatly displeased by 
this heretic who claimed that his own son, although almost two years 
old, had yet to hear a single word of any other language. 

But at least the Deer was talked about, and as a result before long 
it had three hundred paid-up subscribers, which meant that each 
Thursday night as Eliezer trudged through the dark streets his load 
was heavier than the Thursday before. Sometimes the wind almost 

1 06 

Miracle of the Rain 

blew him off his feet. Sometimes the rain soaked him to the skin 
and almost ruined the bundle he carried so affectionately close to 
him, as if it were Ben Zion, his own child. Sometimes his cough 
would be so bad that he would have to set down his small lantern 
while he went through one of his "spells." Several times he fell flat 
on the unpaved street because he had failed to step over a hole. 

Deborah called this weekly trip "Haveevee s Night Watch." She 
tried to persuade him to "put his paper to bed" a few hours earlier 
so there would not be such a mad Thursday-night rush. He refused 
because, he said, he must get into the paper news that happened 
right up to the last minute. Deborah knew him better than to argue. 
This, she told herself, was his Via Dolorosa along which he felt he 
had to go in order to achieve his goal. So she tried to help him with 
love, with patience, with understanding. 

Before long Eliezer s friends had nicknamed him the "Deer/ 9 and 
Deborah became known as the "Deer s Wife/ 3 

One week, annoyed with the compulsory use of this meaningless 
word, Eliezer put the paper out under the name Haor (The Light) . 
But the next day the Turkish government ordered him to revert at 
once to the name which he and Rabbi Hirschenson had been 
licensed to use. 

In these days there often was not enough money in the Ben Ye 
huda purse to buy flour for bread. Any money which came in went 
first to pay the expenses of the paper. Sometimes there was not even 
enough money to purchase the newsprint for the next edition. At 
such times Eliezer would borrow the small sum needed from a sta 
tionery dealer with whom he had become friendly, a pious character 
and a lover of the Hebrew language who looked on the young ma& 
with the short beard almost as if he were a living prophet. Often 
Eliezer would say to Deborah: 

"We have enough now to buy food or pay back my friend. I 
think we had better let the food wait. I must not allow anything to 
happen to my friend s faith in me !" 

No one, not even Eliezer, was aware in these days of what Debo 
rah was going through. First she had a child to take care of and al 
ways had to be on her guard lest a "foreign" word be spoken in the 
infant s presence. On this point Eliezer was now more fanatical than 


Tongue of the Prophets 

he had been at the time the child was born. Then there was the 
problem of running the household with so little money that Deborah 
sometimes wondered herself how she did it. 

Yet not a day went by but that Eliezer had at least one glass of 
milk and one slice of meat for his evening meal. Deborah would put 
the food before him and start to walk away. Eliezer would then 
quickly say: 

"But, my child, I do not like to eat alone. You know that!" 

And then Deborah would reply: 

"You should know by now, Eliezer, that I have a baby to care for 
and I cannot wait until you get home for my food. You sometimes 
come home, Haveevee, so late !" 

Then Eliezer would apologize and go back to the book or paper he 
had started to read. 

Deborah never told him the truth. She never told him that she ate 
alone so he would not see that all she ever had for her evening meal 
was a slice of bread and radishes. 

Such sacrifices did not bother the young wife. This was the sort 
of life she had always expected to have with Eliezer. What did 
bother her was her inability to make Eliezer take some regard for his 
own health. 

Before long the schoolteacher-editor was being called by some by 
a new name, Ha-Apikoros, a word derived from the Greek for "the 

The Deer had begun to print criticism of the institutions in Jeru 
salem supported by funds raised abroad. One article said it was 
ridiculous for all this money to be used to house Jewish students in 
ramshackle buildings in Jerusalem. Why was not the money used to 
buy land on which the students could live and work while they did 
their studying? In this way they could help bring Israel back to fruit- 
fulness, and when they died they would leave something construc 
tively accomplished behind them. 

This radical suggestion horrified even those who agreed. It horri 
fied them because of their fear that Jews abroad would be offended 
and would stop sending charitable contributions to Palestine. 

But the Deer grew in size and in strength as the months went by. 
It grew to six and then to eight pages. It brought its readers news of 

1 08 

Miracle of the Rain 

the outside world, news of inventions and discoveries, news of gen 
eral interest. It brought light into places of darkness, and sunshine 
into the lives of some who up to now had been almost afraid of sun 

Slowly Ben Yehuda introduced new Hebrew words to his readers 
which were needed if one were to use Hebrew for other than reli 
gious purposes. 

Eliezer Ben Yehuda might have been called a fanatic, and indeed 
he was by many. During this period he worked as if the entire future 
of the Jews of the world rested on his own weak shoulders. He was 
being constantly warned by Deborah, by his doctor, and by friends 
that he would soon burn himself out if he did not slow down. They 
gave him all the arguments of caution which wives, doctors, and 
friends have given men with a touch of fanaticism down through 
history: he must husband his strength; he must realize that if he 
worked himself into an early grave his whole campaign would col 
lapse and his small accomplishments would quickly be wiped out by 
his enemies. 

But Deborah, the doctor, and the friends quickly learned that 
such advice was wasted on a man like Ben Yehuda. If such men 
were able to slow down, the advice would never be needed. 

Over and over again Eliezer would press his right hand to his 
tired forehead and say to Deborah: 

"The day, my dear, is so short, the work to be done so great." 

He taught school seven hours a day. He wrote and edited all the 
articles for his paper, set them in type, proofread them, carried the 
papers home, folded and addressed them, then delivered them to 
the post office. 

Because there was a great need for textbooks in Hebrew, he 
worked with teachers and instructors, helping them to compose such 
textbooks in their individual fields. 

Then he got the idea that if there could be plays in Hebrew which 
children could perform it would help popularize the language, so he 
enlisted the help of Hayim Calmi in writing such plays. He began 
working himself on a play with David Yellin, a young instructor 
whose grandfather had settled in Palestine and whose father had 


Tongue of the Prophets 

bedh active in the development of the country. Yellin had been 
brought back to Palestine from London by Nissim Behar and had 
married the daughter of Jehiel Michael Pines. He and his father so 
antagonized the reactionaries of the day that both, about this time, 
were excommunicated, but Yellin went on to found an association 
of Hebrew teachers, translated many books, including the Arabian 
Nights, into Hebrew, and was one of Ben Yehuda s most ardent He 
brew-revival colleagues. 

Eliezer never stopped his intellectual labors before midnight, and 
every morning he was up in time to greet the dawn. When Deborah 
would argue that he should have more sleep, he would reply: 

"I get the strength I need to carry me through the day by watch 
ing the miracle of the sunrise each morning. Please do not deny me 
that ! Next to your help and advice, Deborah, it is the greatest in 
spiration I have!" 

There were thus nineteen hours in each of Eliezer s days, and he 
had undertaken already enough work to fill every one of those hours. 
But now he had a new idea. 

"Our crying need is for an up-to-date dictionary. Just think! 
Here we are trying to teach people to speak a language and there is 
no dictionary of that language. There is not even a Hebrew word 
that signifies dictionary. We must invent a word for dictionary and 
then we must make the dictionary itself." 

"But, Haveevee, that is not a task for a single man, is it? Surely it 
would take a great many scholars a whole lifetime to make a diction 
ary, would it not?" 

"I shall not deny, Deborah, that it would be a colossal job, but 
there is no group of scholars likely to undertake it. I must do it my 
self. Somehow, I must find the time !" 

So Eliezer Ben Yehuda added the creation of a dictionary to his 
list of activities, not realizing that he had set for himself a half-cen 
tury task which would become his great lif ework and would someday 
completely consume him, as the candle destroys the moth. 

As the size of Ben Yehuda s newspaper grew, so also did the size 
of his family. A second son was born. This time Eliezer chose the 
name he wished for the child and made it dear that there would be 
no <Aanging it, The boy was to be known as Avi Hayil (Leader of 


Miracle of the Rain 

the Army) . It was an odd name for a scholar to pick for a son, but 
even in those days Eliezer Ben Yehuda was dreaming of the time 
when Israel might become a nation and, like other nations, have an 
army of its own. He had the wild hope that this second son might 
become the founder of such an army, or at least its commander. 

The birth of Avi Hayil was not the great event that the birth of 
the first child had been. There was no ceremony or celebration, 
principally because the Ben Yehuda family was now in the very na 
dir of its poverty. There was not money enough to buy a single bottle 
of wine with which to toast the arrival of the child. There was not 
even money to buy bread. 

Deborah had worried during her pregnancy about the economics 
of the situation, but Eliezer s mind had been too occupied with intel 
lectual matters even to think of such considerations. It was only 
when Deborah took to her bed that Eliezer was forced to give some 
concern to what practical men would call "practical problems." 

The Leader of the Army had been born, but there was no bread, 
so Eliezer, knowing of no other way to raise money, took his own 
gold watch, which had been Deborah s wedding gift to him and 
which he had faithfully promised he would never sell, and offered it 
to Dr. Wilhelm Herzberg, who had been sent to Jerusalem by the 
Jews of Germany to administer the funds raised by them for Pales 
tinian charities. He asked for a loan of half a napoleon, with the 
watch as security. 

It was an embarrassing step for Eliezer to take, because these 
leaders of nationality groups had been and still were violent in their 
opposition to him. Each group wished to preserve its own language 
and resented Eliezer s attempt to get Jews from Germany, Poland, 
Great Britain, Russia, and the Spanish-speaking countries to come 
together on a common linguistic basis. 

Dr. Herzberg smiled and said : 

"If you are in financial trouble you must have the money. Pay me 
back whenever you can, but please do not insult me by offering me 

The half a napoleon bought bread, but it was not enough to pay 
the back rent which Eliezer owed. At this time the Ben Yehudas 
were living in very modest quarters in an Ashkenazic section outside 


Tongue of the Prophets 

the Old City. The landlord was a Jew named Shalom Blesher. He 
had been very tolerant about the rent bill until one day when there 
appeared in the Deer an article entitled "The Cruel Landlords." It 
was typical of the sort of editorials Eliezer was writing these days. It 
had nothing to do with the Hebrew language or the establishment of 
a Jewish state. 

The editorial pointed out that a number of Jerusalem landlords 
who owned large cisterns were profiteering in water and were hoping 
that the drought would continue so they could keep raising the price 
they charged for each bucketful of the precious liquid. It so hap 
pened and Eliezer must have known it that Shalom Blesher 
owned one of the largest cisterns in Jerusalem and was making a 
neat profit on water. What the young editor did was therefore little 
different from a modern newspaper exposing one of its advertisers 
for fraud. 

Shalom Blesher was indignant. 

"He can t pay his bills and he prays for rain and preaches morals 

to us!" 

So one arid day Eliezer, Deborah, and their two children, the 
youngest a baby in arms, were dispossessed. Their meager belongings 
were literally put into the street. 

Shalom Blesher personally engineered the eviction. 

"You want rain, do you? Well, you troublemaker, now you can 
stand in the street and pray for rain !" 

A crowd gathered. Even those who had been critical of the Here 
tic were moved to sympathy. Deborah sat on a suitcase with Avi 
Hayil in her arms, trying to hold back the tears. Eliezer, who was in 
capable of any violent emotions, stood beside her, trying to comfort 

Suddenly the sky grew dark. The crowd scattered. Shalom Blesher 
also disappeared, frightened by what he apparently decided was an 
omen from heaven. 

Within a few minutes the rains came. For a full hour the deluge 
continued. This was the rain which the Deer had said would put an 
end to the profiteering of the "cruel landlords." All Jerusalem wel 
comed it, even the young man and woman who sat on their baggage 
trying to shield their two offspring from the downpour. 


Miracle of the Rain 

As soon as the storm had passed, men, women, and children 
poured out of their homes and gathered around the Ben Yehudas. 
Some even got down on their knees in the mud to offer the young 
man with the beard their thanks and congratulations. They gave 
him and God full credit for what had happened. 

For a brief moment Eliezer Ben Yehuda was a local hero. 

To the crowd the villain in the piece was, of course, Shalom 
Blesher, so they flocked to his house and shouted his name, threaten 
ing him with all manner of punishment unless he allowed the Ben 
Yehudas to return to their quarters. Blesher did not dare appear, but 
he sent out word that the evicted tenants could have back their 

There are two old sayings which Eliezer thought of several weeks 

"Glory dies quickly; misery has a long life. 5 

"Poverty always follows the poor." 

When news of the Ben Yehudas 5 difficulties with the landlord 
spread through the quarter, shopkeepers to whom Eliezer also owed 
money decided to close in on him. Almost every day there was a pa 
rade of creditors banging at the door with bills in their hands. 

To make matters worse, about this time Eliezer had to give up his 
schoolteaching. His cough had grown so much worse that the Alli 
ance directors decided it would be better for all concerned if he had 
a vacation without pay. 

It was Deborah who suggested, as a solution, that he take a trip to 
Moscow, where her own family, the Yonases, now lived. 

"If you can borrow money for the trip, Haveevee, it will be a 
good investment. I know that my family will help if you just explain 
the situation to them. Besides, you yourself have said that you have 
worked up a good following among the Jews of Russia. Surely, in 
this emergency, tihey will come forward with some financial support 
for both the paper and the dictionary you wish to write, if you can 
only meet them and explain everything." 

"But it will take weeks to make such a trip," Eliezer pointed out. 
"How can I leave you with two small children for such a time?" 

Tongue of the Prophets 

Deborah forced him to forget this consideration. Then Eliezer 
brought up another problem. 

"I know you think I go too far in not wanting our children even 
to hear any other language except Hebrew. But I wonder if you, by 
yourself, are strong enough to prevent it?" 

Suddenly Deborah burst into tears. 

"I have had much trouble already which I have kept from you. 
Your friend, Mr. Pines, the last time I saw him, tried to fill my mind 
with many doubts. He begged me to have pity on our children be 
fore it is too late. He said I owe it to them not to try to teach them 
Hebrew, in order to prevent them from becoming idiots !" 

Eliezer waved his hand to stop her. Then in his calm, soft voice 
he said: 

"Deborah, my child, do you remember when Ben Zion was two 
years old? On his second birthday he had still not said a word. Do 
you remember how Pines and all the others told us that this was 
proof it could not be done? They tried to tell us that Ben Zion was 
going to grow up to be an idiot. They try to frighten us with this 

"But you also remember that it was only a short time later that 
the boy began to talk. And now ! Now he is five and speaks beautiful 
Hebrew ! And nothing except Hebrew ! Not a word of any other lan 
guage has ever passed his lips. 

"Deborah, this is our great experiment. Nothing in the world is 
going to stop me from trying to make it succeed. 

"However, I promise that if we find it impossible to bring up our 
children speaking only Hebrew, then I will admit publicly that I 
have failed. I shall publish it in my newspaper and say to the world 
that I was wrong; that it is impossible to revive a dead language. 

"Meanwhile, we must not weaken. What Pines talks is nonsense ! 
You and I must show him how wrong he is !" 

So in the summer of 1887 Eliezer Ben Yehuda took leave of Jeru 
salem and headed for Moscow. Before going he entrusted his news 
paper to the only man willing to take on the responsibility, Jehiel 
Michael Pines, representative of the British Jews in Palestine, the 
same Mr. Pines who was so sure the Ben Yehudas were raising a 
lankily of idiots. 


Time for Deborah 


moved from Shalom Blesher s house to a less expensive place in a 
large courtyard where only Sephardic Jews lived, hoping that they 
would be more tolerant of her than the Ashkenazic Jews had been. 
The Sephardic women, she had discovered, never tried to force her 
to adopt their other religious customs and superstitions so long as she 
conformed in the single matter of covering her head with a kerchief 
and wore a piece of black velvet on her forehead. 

Eliezer had left her with money enough to last little more than a 
\veek. There was an immediate necessity of earning more. Her good 
Sephardic neighbors came to the rescue. They taught her how to do 
embroidery work and to knit. She learned quickly and spent innu 
merable hours at it every day, her fingers flying. Then the neighbors 
helped her market her handiwork. 

They also taught her many tricks of living on a minimum of 
money. Her main food, all the time Eliezer was gone, was dark 
bread dipped in olive oil, which she purchased a liter at a time from 
men who went by the door with day pots and bottles strapped to 
the backs of their small donkeys. 

Once in the middle of her knitting Deborah jumped up, ran to a 

Tongue of the Prophets 

mirror, and studied her face. She was now thirty-three, yet she ap 
peared a worn-out, middle-aged woman. She remembered how Eli- 
ezer used to tell her how lovely she looked. It had been years since 
he had made such a comment. So that day Deborah swore that be 
fore he returned she would do something to try to regain what she 
had lost. 

She remembered that the book of ancient Jewish law said that 
women as well as men must beautify themselves; that "women be 
come ugly unless they use cosmetics." 

So the next day Deborah spoke to one of her Sephardic neighbors 
who had learned from the Arabs about roots whose juice kept the 
hair from turning gray; about a liquid which, when dropped into 
the eyes, made the pupils bright and exciting; about painting the 
fingernails; about how to accentuate the eyes with antimony, an 
cestor of modern eye cosmetics. 

By the discreet use of these ancient tricks Deborah hoped she 
would be able to improve her appearance so much that when Eliezer 
returned he would find her almost as fresh and charming as when 
they had met in Vienna six years ago. 

Also while her husband was in Moscow, Deborah devoted hours 
each day to reading his books, studying geography, brushing up her 
knowledge of the sciences, and digging deeply into the history of the 
Jews and of other peoples. She even decided, as a surprise, to pre 
pare herself to teach Hebrew the same way Eliezer did. He called it 
"teaching Hebrew in Hebrew." It was a method which generations 
later would be used by one of the most successful language schools 
in the world. In Eliezer 3 s classrooms no word was ever spoken of any 
language except the language being studied, Hebrew. 

All this time the young wife kept writing encouraging letters to 
Eliezer in Moscow. She was happy and comfortably situated. Neither 
of his sons had yet heard a single word of any foreign language. 
They played happily by themselves. They would all rejoice when he 
returned, but he must stay there until his mission had been fully ac 

Pola, the baby of the Yonas family, was about eighteen years 
younger than Deborah and nearly fourteen years younger than 


Time for Deborah 

Eliezer. Yet the first love of her life was the frightened boy her father 
had found in the synagogue of Glubokiah and had brought home 
for breakfast one cold morning in 1872. She had cried when he cut 
off his curls, and years later, before she was even ten years old, she 
had wrangled with her older sister, whenever his name was men 
tioned, over whose sweetheart he was. 

Now, in the summer of 1887, Eliezer was her brother-in-law and 
she was no longer a child. Yet as she stood in the family reception 
line to greet him on his visit to Moscow she realized that her child 
hood feelings for him were still little changed. He was almost twice 
her age, yet to her, despite the worry lines on his face and the emaci 
ation caused by his repeated illnesses, he was still a romantic crea 
ture. He had come from that far-off place where he and Deborah 
lived and where they had been fighting a battle the purpose of which 
she did not yet really understand. 

Father Yonas still considered Eliezer his own protege, as well as 
his son-in-law, and greeted him with both love and admiration. As 
the young man sank exhausted into the cushions of a sofa in the li 
brary, where his education had really started, he told them of his 
long trip, commencing with the difficulties he had had obtaining a 
Russian visa because he had given up his Russian passport. 

"And what nationality of man am I now entertaining?" 

"I am a Turk." 

"And why did you ever become a Turk, of all things?" 

"Because I feel it is a person s duty to take the citizenship of the 
country in which he makes his home and to share in the obligations 
as well as the advantages of that place. I have no other reason for 
becoming a Turk except that the Turks now rule our Holy Land, 
and as long as they do, I must be a Turk. Also, by changing my na 
tionality I was able to change my name! 3 

From the moment Eliezer entered the house the conversation was 
all in Hebrew, for Deborah had warned her father about her hus 
band s fanaticism. The result was that the children understood little 
of what was said, which especially irritated Pola, who had to be con 
tent with just staring discreetly from under her long eyelashes at the 
man she had "always loved/ 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Mother Yonas understood a word here and there. She understood 
what Eliezer meant when, in Hebrew, he asked her if it would be 
possible to have his food prepared in the Orthodox manner while he 
remained with them. She understood the words but was perplexed 
by the idea. 

"You know we do not follow Orthodox rules, Eliezer, and you 
never did either!" 

"You are correct, but when Deborah and I settled in Jerusalem 
we decided to abide by all the customs of the majority so we would 
be accepted. We try to live as they live." 

"But," interjected Father Yonas, "you are not in Palestine now, 
so why keep up the subterfuge?" 

"I would feel myself a hypocrite if I did things differently behind 
their backs, and so I hope it is possible for me to observe the dietary 
laws and dress in the Palestinian fashion while I am living with 

When he later appeared in his long coat trimmed with red-fox 
fur and his oriental fez there was amusement on the part of the Yo 
nas children. All except Pola. She whispered to one of her sisters : 

"Doesn t he look romantic! Just like an ancient holy man, with 
his beard and those strange clothes! Just like in a picture book." 

The next morning Eliezer had a frank talk with his father-in-law 
about the Ben Yehuda financial problem. The older man at first was 

"Why did my daughter not tell me you were suffering from lack 
of money? 

"I know you do not want charity. What you need and deserve is 
support from Jews here and elsewhere. Let us commence at once to 
make a list of people you should see." 

Several days later a delegation called at the Yonas home to see the 
man from Palestine. Among them were many destined to play lead 
ing roles in Palestine and in latter-day Jewish history, but now they 
were all young university students. One was Menahem Ben Mosche 
Ussishkin, engineering student, who eventually was to become one 
of Ben Yehuda s greatest enemies. Two others introduced themselves 
as> Jehiel Tschlenow, medical student, and Reuben Brainin, a young 
Hebrew writer. 


Time for Deborah 

The student group arranged a number of meetings at which Ben 
Yehuda made appeals for subscriptions to his paper and to the dic 
tionary on which he told them he was working. 

In his speeches Ben Yehuda stressed the necessity for quick action 
in Palestine, warning that this small piece of land was a prize on 
which many nations had their eyes. 

Most of those who flocked to the meetings were young. Many 
vowed they would soon be at Ben Yehuda s side on the fighting line 
in Palestine. Their contributions were small but numerous. 

Before going home Eliezer made a quick side trip to Paris. Many 
important French Jews received him with respect. Six years ago 
they had called him a dreamy idealist, a wild-eyed visionary. Now, 
although many did not agree with him, they listened. 

When he brought up the matter of financial support, the Jewish 
leaders of France promised to consider helping him if he did nothing 
to raise the older generation against him in Palestine. 

"Be content to work on your dictionary and encourage people to 
emigrate to Palestine, 3 they told him. "Above all, do not stir up our 
French representatives in Jerusalem against you. Follow this advice 
and you probably shall receive our help/ 

Eliezer Ben Yehuda returned to Jerusalem, after an absence of 
several months, full of energy and hope. 

Deborah s double transformation heightened his happiness. In be 
tween sentences of his report on all he had seen and done, he compli 
mented her on her appearance. 

"It is just as if we were back in Vienna again!" 

Nothing he could have said would have flattered her more. 

It took a few days for him to discover her mental transformation. 
When he did he was even more pleased. 

Several days after his return Deborah said to him : 

"While you were gone someone passing through Jerusalem told 
me that your old friend Tshashnikov has settled in one of the Scan 
dinavian countries; that he has never married; that he has been fol 
lowing your activities with great interest. I wonder, Eliezer, why he 
has never written to you." 

Her husband shrugged his shoulders and changed the subject. 

Tongue of the Prophets 

The happiness reflected in Eliezer s face quickly disappeared, 
however, when he discovered what Mr. Pines had done in his ab 
sence. The acting editor had thrown the full support of the paper 
behind the forthcoming observance of Shemittah, an ancient Ortho 
dox custom under which land is given a rest one year out of every 
seven. For twelve months no field is plowed, no planting is done, no 
crops are harvested, trees are neither sprayed nor pruned, nature is 
allowed to run rampant. 

Eliezer knew that behind the old custom, as with all Orthodox 
practices, there was a sound, practical consideration. He knew 
enough about farming to be aware that the earth occasionally needs 
a rest; that originally Shemittah was in the nature of a crop-rotation 

But he also knew, as with so many Orthodox practices, that Shem 
ittah was taken too literally; that it was used as an excuse for lazi 
ness; that young trees would die of neglect, and that years of hard 
work in trying to bring patches of the desert back to fertility would 
be undone. 

So he summarily dismissed Mr. Pines and then wrote a series of 
diatribes against the observance of the sabbatical year. Never before 
or afterward did he write with such an acid pen. 

The next issue of the Deer caused a sensation. Groups of men 
gathered on street corners and talked excitedly about the articles. 
Families were divided. Neighbors took sides against each other. Jeru 
salem was in an uproar. 

The elders of the Holy City felt they finally had a chance to put a 
noose around the neck of the young heretic. They appealed to the 
rabbis to declare a ban on the Deer. They were joined by the Haluk- 
kah leaders who managed the charitable funds ancl saw an oppor 
tunity to get even with Ben Yehuda for his articles calling them 

The ban was imposed, with all the old Orthodox formalities. 
Black candles were burned in the synagogues. A "town crier" went 
through the streets blowing the wind instrument made from a ram s 
horn and called a shofar. 

"The Deer is banned! The Deer is banned! It is officially forbid 
den for any good Jew to buy, possess, or read this paper !" 


Time for Deborah 

On Sabbath eve great posters appeared on the walls of Jerusalem, 
not only repeating the wording of the ban, but also denouncing the 
paper and its editor in scathing language. One section, in the form 
of an open letter to Ben Yehuda, said: 

"You thought you could deceive Jerusalem by appearing before 
us in your long robe and your fez. You are mistaken. We are not de 
ceived. We declare you a heretic, an unbeliever, and in addition you 
are a hypocrite. We shall know in the future how to guard ourselves 
from your lies and shall not fall into your trap." 

Rushing home from reading one of the posters, Eliezer burst into 
Deborah s room. He forgot that she was expecting the birth of their 
third child. He forgot his customary restraint. He forgot everything 
but that he had been held up to public scorn. 

"It is impossible to meet these people halfway! It is impossible to 
fight their misguided leaders in a subtle fashion. Perhaps your father, 
after all, was right. I should have listened to him ! But now I shall 
really start to fight! I hope they remember that they began this!" 

Deborah looked up and in a frightened little voice asked: 

"Haveevee, what are you doing?" 

Eliezer had taken off his long coat trimmed with the red fur of 
the fox and was trampling it under his feet. Now he threw his ori 
ental red fez to the floor. 

"Haveevee, this is so sad. You liked that coat so much ! Surely you 
remember once saying you would like to see such coats worn by all 
Jews as a national costume instead of as a religious requirement." 

"I did, Deborah, but not any more. I shall never wear it again. 
Also, I am going to remove one more sign of my attempt at con 
formity. I am going to shave off my beard !" 

Deborah let out a small cry of pain. 

"No ! Not that, Haveevee ! I shall never recognize you without it. 
You look so well with a beard, Eliezer!" 

"All right, I shall compromise with you," he promised after a 
short argument. "I shall trim it down so that I look like a French 
man with a short Vandyke. It will still indicate that I am no longer 
following the Orthodox custom of letting the beard grow." 

When Editor Eliezer Ben Yehuda next appeared in the streets 
more people stared at him than ever before. He looked, except for 


Tongue of the Prophets 

the lines on his face, just as he had the day he arrived, nearly seven 
years ago, dressed like a gentleman from Paris. 

The next issue of the Deer came out with its front page in a wide 
black frame as a symbol of mourning. In that issue appeared an arti 
cle which was due to become one of the most celebrated pieces of 
writing to come from the Ben Yehuda pen. It was entitled : 



Instead of going on the defensive, the young editor did what any 
good military leader does when the enemy strikes hard at him. He 
made a counterattack. 

The article lit into the Halukkah. It accused the leaders of "social 
crimes. 5 It blamed them for holding back the progress of Israel. It 
called them "reactionaries" in the worst sense, men with their eyes 
on the road behind, afraid to look forward toward the bright future. 

The answer of his opponents was another ban, announced with 
all the excoriation of the first. The building in which the Deer was 
printed and the Ben Yehuda home were now placed under a boy 
cott. No religious Jew must enter either place, under pain of severe 

In the midst of all this tension Deborah s third child was born, a 
girl whom they called Yemeemah, an old biblical name. 

Deborah needed friends now, yet many who had been intimate 
deserted her, afraid to defy the elders of Jerusalem. 

Nissim Behar, the Alliance-school director, publicly came to Ben 
Yehuda s defense. He also told him he would try to get from the 
"Great Benefactor," as Baron Rothschild was called, the financial 
support which the French Jews had promised. 

As reactions to the Halukkah fight came in from around Palestine 
it was evident that the rest of the country did not reflect Jerusalem s 

There was by now a large Jewish population in Jaffa, and it was 
almost wholeheartedly behind the Deer s stand. A number of new 
settlements had been established. The pioneers working on the land 
were unanimously on Ben Yehuda s side. 

The big gun he fired in the next issue was a demand that the di- 


Time for Deborah 

rectors of the Halukkah publish an exact accounting of the moneys 
they had received in the past year from abroad and an explanation 
of how they had spent all of it. 

He demanded that they give the name of each recipient. He im 
plied that the officials would refuse because they would never reveal 
how large their own salaries were, nor allow the public to discover 
that after the payment of organizational expenses there was so little 
left for the poor. 

He also demanded that the religious schools draw up and an 
nounce a tangible, orderly, scientific program which would lead to 
improvement in the curriculum and a degree of efficiency. 

This new double-barreled attack increased the intensity of feeling 
on both sides. 

As soon as Deborah was well enough she obtained a position teach 
ing Hebrew in the Evelina de Rothschild school for girls, which had 
been established by English Jews, with Behar s sister as principal. 
This permitted Eliezer to spend all his time on his paper and his new 
project, the dictionary, although he did sandwich in the writing and 
publishing of a modern Palestinian geography book. 

His enemies were unable to silence him. 


Thrice Death 


ond day of EM, in the late summer of 1891. She died of the disease 
which she had contracted from her husband, 

It was irony that doctors had been telling Eliezer since his youth 
that he had only a few years to live and that he had hesitated about 
marrying Deborah because she might so soon become a widow. Yet 
it was Deborah who died of tuberculosis. 

She was thirty-seven. Eliezer was thirty-three. 

It was also ironical that Deborah, after fighting with so little com 
plaint at her husband s side through the grimmest part of his life, 
should be taken away just when, finally, there was a chance for a 
modicum of comfort and security, a taste of success. 

The Ben Yehudas had moved into a larger house surrounded by 
a garden. Deborah had a Sephardic woman as a maid. Two more 
children had arrived, both girls. One had been named Attarah, from 
the Hebrew word for "tiara," and the other Shlomit, derived from 
the Hebrew word for "peace." 

Ben Zion now was nine years old, and Avi Hayil was six. Both, 
thanks to Deborah s consideration of her husband s fanaticism, spoke 
beautiful Hebrew and not a word of any other tongue. The first 


Thrice Death 

daughter, Yemeemah, was now three and already had begun to talk 
her father s language. The two babies had thus far been sheltered 
from the "contaminating languages." 

The Ben Yehuda house and garden echoed all day with the laugh 
ter of the children and the babble of Hebrew words, many of which 
the father had dug out of old books or had actually created. Hebrew 
was the language of their games. It was the language in which they 
studied, for now in Nissim Behar s school it was possible for pupils 
to learn geography, history, and even mathematics in Hebrew. 

When Yemeemah had begun to talk Eliezer had had a new ex 
citement, that of hearing his favorite language spoken in the mellif 
luent, euphonious tones of a small girl. 

The Ben Yehuda home by now was furnished in European style, 
which was a novelty in this part of the world. In the dining room 
there was a round European-type table, six chairs, and a mirror in a 
large ornamental gilded frame. 

Life had begun to take on a more pleasant hue, and Deborah 
had started to enjoy her role as "the first Hebrew mother in nearly 
two thousand years." 

But then she commenced to cough. She had a terror from the start 
that it was the White Plague. She refused for a long time to allow 
Eliezer to send for a doctor, fearing to be told what she knew she 
would be told. 

But a doctor finally came and confirmed her fear. 

Eliezer wrote to the Yonas family, and in return Deborah received 
an immediate invitation to come to Moscow, alone or, if she wished, 
with all five children. But by the time the invitation arrived her con 
dition had deteriorated so much that the doctor said such a trip was 
out of the question. 

Eliezer then wrote to his own mother, with whom he had had 
little correspondence in all these years. She agreed to come at once, 
but then a difficulty arose. The Turkish government had begun to , 
get suspicious of the nationalistic activities of Palestinian Jews and 
had issued a ban against any more Jewish immigation, just as an 
other nation was to do half a century later, with more tragic results. 

Eliezer suffered mentally as well as physically in these days. He 
knew that his disease was going to take Deborah. Every day she grew 


Tongue of the Prophets 

weaker and there was less of a sparkle in her eyes. Yet she wanted 
so desperately to live! 

Eliezer had many problems. First, the children. It was not easy 
to prepare five small boys and girls for the imminent death of their 
mother. It was not easy for a man as impractical in a household way 
as he was to edit a newspaper, work on a dictionary, run a home, 
play nurse to a dying wife, and take care of five children, the young 
est a baby in arms. 

In desperation Eliezer went to the Turkish pasha of Jerusalem 
and appealed to him. to make an exception in the case of Mrs. Perl- 
man of Luzhky, his mother. He explained that she was almost 
seventy; that she was harmless to the Turks or to anyone else, for 
she was too old to bear arms, or children either. Besides, Eliezer 
pointed out, she would be here for just a short time; just until the 
death of his wife. 

The pasha s answer was a cold, stern "No. 5 

So Eliezer arranged to have his seventy-year-old mother smug 
gled into the port of Jaffa disguised as a sack of potatoes ! 

Thus Feygaleh came to the shores of the Promised Land, in a 
burlap sack loaded in a small boat with other pieces of cargo. She 
arrived, finally, at the Ben Yehuda home more dead than alive. 

She arrived to find Deborah melting away like a rapidly burning 
candle. There was fever in her eyes and the terror of approaching 

Mother Perlman knew the Hebrew words of the Bible, but she 
had never really understood what the words meant. Spoken Hebrew 
was a complete mystery to her. 

So Eliezer made his first concession. He permitted his own mother 
to speak to Deborah and the older children in Russian, on the un 
derstanding that she would never converse before them in Yiddish. 

Mrs. Perlman was a perfect nurse. She and the invalid quickly 
acquired a mutual love for each other. But Deborah wanted her own 
mother at her side during what time was left. So she dictated a let 
ter, which Eliezer wrote for her, imploring her mother to come at 

Mother Yonas was also smuggled in. By the time she arrived 
Deborah had been taken to a hospital. 


Thrice Death 

One month later she died in her sleep. She was too weak in those 
last days even to say good-by. 

She died with her mother,, her mother-in-law, her husband, and! 
her children clustered around her. 

The first Hebrew mother in nearly two thousand years had gone 
to her ancestors, leaving behind five small hostages to fortune. 

Deborah s death provided the enemies of Eliezer Ben Yehuda 
with a new opportunity for revenge. They thought that this time, 
because he was so weighed down with grief, they could break him 

The Ashkenazic undertakers who had charge of the body said 
they were sorry but they had just been officially informed that Mrs. 
Ben Yehuda, being the wife of a man against whom a religious ban 
had been issued, had been declared terefah, or unclean, an ugly 
little word in any language; an especially ugly word to be used about 
so sweet a character so soon after her death. 

Instead of being crushed by the announcement, Eliezer reacted 
like an infuriated wild animal. 

"And what does this all mean?" he demanded. 

"It means/ 3 the undertakers replied, "that we are digging a grave 
for your wife outside the walk of the cemetery. It is not allowed that 
an unclean body be placed anywhere near the others, for fear of 
their contamination." 

Eliezer shouted his defiance. 

"This is an insult I shall not tolerate I You need not dig any grave 
at all. I shall make other arrangements. 3 

Whereupon he went to the leaders of the Sephardic congregation 
and asked them if they would take charge of the burial. They agreed, 
and Sephardic undertakers went to get the body from the Ashke 
nazic undertakers. 

This caused the Ashkenazic leaders to hold a quick consultation. 
Perhaps they had gone too far. It would not do to let Ben Yehuda 
outwit them this way. 

Eliezer eventually won the battle. He argued with them until they 
agreed that Deborah would berried within the walls of the Ash- 


Tongue of the Prophets 

kenazic cemetery in the place of highest honor, on the summit of 
the Mount of Olives. 

Readers of the Deer waited impatiently for the next issue. But 
they were disappointed. After the conventional seven days of mourn 
ing called Shivah the paper appeared with no reference to the death 
or the controversy, except a short quotation from the Book of Jere 
miah, surrounded by a thin black border: 

I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine 
espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a 
land that was not sown. 

After several weeks Mother Yonas returned to Moscow, leaving 
Eliezer s mother to manage the household. 

One bright spot was the reunion of Mrs. Perlman with her brother 
who had been kidnaped as a child by the Cossacks. But this minor 
joy was quickly overshadowed by fresh tragedy. Within two months 
after Deborah s death, Avi Hayil, who in Eliezer s dream was to 
become leader of an Israeli army, became ill and died. In the same 
month death also took the two younger Ben Yehuda daughters. All 
three children were buried on the top of the Mount of Olives beside 
the body of their mother. 

It was a sad household after they left: Eliezer, his firct-born son, 
one daughter, and the aged grandmother who, although she rarely 
said it aloud, saw in all this tragedy the hand of God meting out 
punishment to her son for his un-Orthodox behavior. 

Mrs. Perlman s continued ignorance of Hebrew and Eliezer s con 
tinued insistence that she not talk Yiddish to the children made life 
difficult in the Ben Yehuda home, especially when little Yemee- 
mah would burst into tears and demand to know when her mother, 
her two sisters, and Avi Hayil were coming back. 

The grandmother finally solved the problem by learning the He 
brew word for "someday, 3 which she not only used to answer the 
question the child kept asking, but even made into a song which 
she sang to put Yemeemah to sleep. 

Eliezer s grief was both increased and ameliorated by another 
tragedy which occurred at this time. The young wife of Nissim 


Thrice Death 

Behar died just after Deborah, leaving the director of the Alliance 
school with two small children. 

Friends already, the two men now became brothers in misfor 
tune. Each morning for months Behar would call at the Ben Yehuda 
home for Eliezer, and together they would take a long walk into the 
outskirts of Jerusalem. This exercise and the invigorating air of the 
Judean hills did much to help them regain the courage and strength 
they needed to carry on. 


Intrigue and Bribery 


gradually being populated by Jews, with nearly a dozen agricultural 
colonies already established, the Turkish government went to great 
lengths to enforce the law against Jewish immigation. But the Jews, 
just as they were to do half a century later when the British would 
try to close the doors of Palestine, organized an underground and 
smuggled in a considerable number of immigrants. 

The more conservative Jews not only tacitly approved the re 
strictions imposed by the Turkish government but imposed some of 
their own. 

Settlements which had ignored the pronouncement of a sabbatical 
year by working their fields were placed under the stigma of a re 
ligious curse. Schools were banned if they encouraged the study of 
Hebrew. Hebrew teachers were castigated. Pupils who insisted on 
studying Hebrew were placed on a black list which was even en 
larged to include their relatives. 

Eliezer Ben Yehuda was the archangel of evil. But his enemies 
were sure God would take care of him; that he would quickly follow 
his wife and children to the grave. There were even those who were 
happy if they received a report that his cough was worse. 


Intrigue and Bribery 

In their fanaticism they persecuted even those who had never 
been very enthusiastic supporters of the Ben Yehuda program. 

One of their victims was the same Mr. Pines who had managed 
the Deer while Ben Yehuda was in Moscow. Pines was placed under 
a ban and even made the butt of cheap jokes. One day a paper list 
ing all the complaints against him was tied to the tail of a mangy 
dog, which was chased through the streets until it had advertised 
the Pines case in every corner of Jerusalem. 

Pines, unable to stand such attacks, moved to Jaffa, where he 
established a "Society for the Support of Fanners and Artisans." 

About this time Ben Yehuda and Behar concocted a piece of po 
litical intrigue. 

Although the Jews were second-class citizens here, the Ottoman 
Empire gave them a small voice through an officially recognized 
representative, called Hacham Bashi, to the Turkish government. 
The man who was the Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic community was 
automatically Hacham Bashi. It was a position of great power, yet 
in the past it had generally been held by an extremely antiquated 
Jew with few progressive leanings. 

"Why," asked Ben Yehuda, "should we not try to find some 
young, well-educated, cultured, and forceful person, pleasing in ap 
pearance, who can win the respect of governments and fight for us 
in the diplomatic field, and at the same time raise the status of the 
Sephardim in the eyes of the world?" 

Behar and Ben Yehuda chose as their candidate a young rabbi 
named Jacob Meir, who had many but not all the qualifications. 
His greatest asset was that he did not have what Ben Yehuda always 
called "the ghetto mentality." However, he knew not a word of 
French, the language most widely used in social and government 
circles in the Middle East. 

Behar and Ben Yehuda had many talks with Rabbi Meir, who 
was just two years older than Eliezer himself. Rabbi Meir was a 
little overawed at the idea of aspiring for such high office, but they 
finally convinced him that there was a chance of success if he would 
agree to work diligently preparing himself. Then when the time 
for action came Ben Yehuda would throw the support of the Deer 
behind his candidacy, and Behar would use his influence with the 

Tongue of the Prophets 

Chief Rabbi of France and with Baron Rothschild if necessary. 

They told him he must learn to speak fluent French as quickly as 
possible. But he must do his studying in secret, for if the conserva 
tives even suspected, they would organize violent opposition. 

Accordingly, for hours each day, Rabbi Meir studied in a locked 
room. His servants had orders to admit no one but Ben Yehuda or 

But in spite of such precautions the secret leaked out and an up 
roar ensued. The flames of the controversy spread to Jaffa and the 
settlements. Again, as in each other dispute which Ben Yehuda had 
generated, neighbors fought with neighbors; parents argued with 
their children. 

Finally, as a compromise, Ben Yehuda and Behar agreed that 
they would not try to force the young rabbi s appointment. Instead 
they offered to throw their support behind the selection of the elderly 
and conservative head of the Elyashar family, in return for which 
their young protege would be made his assistant and upon his death 
might succeed him. 

Controversies like this one kept the Jews of Palestine in a state of 
high tension and also had an effect abroad. Many saw in them proof 
that Jews could never live together in peace, even if they had their 
own state and their own language. 

But Ben Yehuda was not discouraged by such talk. He answered 
such critics by saying: 

"This is life. Wine must ferment. Bread must rise. Brothers must 
quarrel. Thus it is written." 

Those who came to Palestine on a visit were favorably impressed 
by the progress that had been made on the land. There were Jewish 
agricultural settlements now in all parts of the country, Hebrew was 
being taught in many schools, by many teachers, in the Ben Yehuda 
manner, without recourse to the use of any other language. Young 
mothers were even singing Hebrew lullabies to their children. 

Ben Yehuda had also succeeded in having Hebrew introduced 
into the curriculum of several of the old theological schools, al 
though such schools were citadels of reaction. Only Ben Yehuda s 
most intimate friends knew how it had been accomplished. It was 


Intrigue and Bribery 

simple bribery. Each week he paid each teacher who gave lessons in 
spoken Hebrew a secret and unofficial "salary." Also, each week 
each pupil who submitted to Hebrew instruction was likewise paid a 
bribe for his willingness to defy convention. The fact that teachers 
and pupils were always on the verge of poverty made them very 
amenable to such an arrangement. (A book of accounts in Ben 
Yehuda s own handwriting listing such payments is still preserved.) 

Ben Yehuda s major activity was still the Deer, although he spent 
hours each day doing research for his dictionary. The paper contin 
ued to grow in size and circulation. Even his enemies were forced to 
subscribe so they could attack the ideas he advanced. 

He often worked all night translating British, French, and Ger 
man literature into Hebrew for serialization in the Deer. 

Because the Turkish government was violently opposed to foreign 
culture and prohibited the publication of any foreign literature, Ben 
Yehuda was compelled to withhold the names of foreign authors 
and even change titles. 

He published Victor Hugo s Notre Dame de Paris under the title, 
The Stolen One, author anonymous. 

When he printed Moliere s Le Tartuffe and his UAvare his critics 
wrote that he was giving circulation to anti-Semitic writings. Pales 
tine s wealthiest Jew was sure that he personally was being lam 

When the Deer carried articles about new inventions and scientific 
discoveries the opposition said such items undermined religion. 

When Ben Yehuda tried to encourage the start of an endemic 
Palestinian literature they argued that Jews should keep their minds 
on the study of biblical law. But Ben Yehuda, undisturbed by their 
clamor, continued to help every young poet, novelist, or journalist 
who came to him. 

There was hardly a field in which the young editor did not try 
to raise the cultural and artistic level. But most important, each issue 
of the Deer contained at least one new Hebrew word which had 
been discovered or created by Ben Yehuda. Thus each week Hebrew 
was becoming more and more a language in which women could do 
their marketing, children could play games and call each other 
names, and men could discuss scientific and political developments. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

On the first day of each month, which in Hebrew is called Rosh 
Hodesh, Eliezer Ben Yehuda would put on his best suit, pack a grip 
with books and papers, and go to Jaffa. These monthly trips were 
partly business, partly pleasure. After Deborah s death Eliezer 
looked forward to them with relish. 

From early morning until late at night a Jewish money-changer 
named Baruchin sat in a stall close by the Jaffa Gate. Often Eliezer 
would not have the necessary capital for the trip, in which case 
Baruchin the Money-Changer would advance him however much 
he needed, knowing that forty-eight hours later, when Eliezer re 
turned, he would have money enough from selling subscriptions to 
the Deer to repay the loan. 

Baruchin also grew accustomed to another piece of routine. Twice 
each year Eliezer would come to him with a worried frown and say: 

"Baruchin, my friend, I have just received word that Baron 
Rothschild s representative will be in Jaffa next week. As you know, 
I receive a small subsidy from the baron, and so it is necessary for 
me to make a good impression on his administrator. For that rea 
son . . ." 

So each six months Baruchin would advance the money for a new 
suit, which Eliezer always found some way to pay back. Baruchin, 
out of his regard for Ben Yehuda, never charged him interest. 

What Eliezer liked best about Jaffa was that here one could get 
away, temporarily at least, from the bickerings and petty squabbles 
of Jerusalem. Here a fresh breeze blew in from the sea, and the 
moral atmosphere was invigorating too. Jaffa was a modern, thriv 
ing city. There was conviviality here, and intellectual awareness. 
This was part of a new world. 

f Each visit, for Eliezer Ben Yehuda, had its financial rewards. He 
not only collected new subscriptions to the Deer but also sold He 
brew textbooks which had been written and published in Jerusalem. 

He sat in on conferences at which the establishment of new colo 
nies and the purchase of additional land were discussed. 

The most productive of has meetings was one which resulted in 
the establishment of the first school anywhere in the world, in nearly 
two thousand years, in which no other language but Hebrew would 
be spoken. The founder was Israel Belkind, who started the school 


Intrigue and Bribery 

without a bit of financial support from anyone, although Ben Ye 
huda gave him generous assistance in less material ways. 

The conferences in Jaffa sometimes ended in arguments and disa 
greements. In the matter of acquiring new land Ben Yehuda took 
the minority position that two considerations should always be kept 
in mind; whether the tract to be purchased was defensible in case of 
Arab attack, and whether the tract had any historical significance 
for Jews. The majority always argued in favor of buying land 
merely on the basis of its fertility. 

On one trip Eliezer took exciting news to his Jaffa friends. He 
had just received a letter from Deborah s youngest sister, Pola. In 
Moscow, she wrote, she had met a fine-looking, cultured Russian 
Jew named Halperin who, although only twenty-six years old, had 
built up a small fortune in Smolensk. For nearly a year he had been 
trying to convince his wife that they should take their money, their 
three small children, and all their worldly possessions and emigrate 
to Palestine. His wife had heard so many discouraging tales about 
the barrenness of the land and the prevalence of serious diseases that 
she refused even to listen. 

According to Pola s letter, the husband in exasperation had di 
vided his fortune into two equal parts. One part he turned over to 
his wife and children; with tie other half he had started for Pales 

The next time Eliezer went to Jaffa he learned that Halperin had 
arrived and had spent most of his money buying a large tract of 
land in Judea, which he presented to a group of settlers who were 
establishing a community called Nes Ziona. The philanthropist 
Halperin would become a common laborer on the land with the 
rest of them. 

About this same time a group of Jewish immigrants from Warsaw 
acquired a large tract not far from Jaffa and established a colony 
named Rehovoth (Expansion). Although the Rehovoth pioneers 
were men of great faith and ambition, they could hardly have 
dreamed that within fifty years their settlement would grow into one 
of the greatest beauty spots in the new Israel, its hills covered with 
orange groves, eucalyptus forests, and vineyards, its streets lined 


Tongue of the Prophets 

with some of the most sumptuous homes in the country, and that 
tourists would someday come from distant places between Purim 
and Passover to see the display of almond blossoms covering the 
ground like deep snow. 

These were not the only new settlements. An entire network of 
Jewish villages had now been formed, each a spot of green against 
a dull brown background. 

It was still dangerous, however, for Jews to travel on roads at 
night between villages. Arab highwaymen would waylay them, take 
their money, strip them of their clothes, and even force them to re 
move and hand over the shoes they wore. If the victims protested too 
loudly they often were murdered. 

Arabs made surprise raids on Jewish shepherds at sunset and stole 
their flocks. At night, as the harvest season approached, they would 
raid Jewish fields. When the patience of the Jewish settlers finally 
wore thin, they appealed to the Turkish government for protection, 
but the Turkish government was extremely uninterested in their 

Then young Jewish men procured rifles and organized guard 
units. One of the leaders of this defense movement was a youth 
named Branitzky, who was to go down in history as a fabled charac 
ter. He was from Rishon Le Zion, a towering, robust settler who 
owned one of the finest horses in all Palestine. Ben Yehuda heard 
many stories illustrating his fearlessness. Eventually, while Branitzky 
was traveling alone down a deserted road, he was waylaid and 
killed. His memory, however, still lives in legend. 

Another founder of the Jewish guards was Israel Feinberg, who 
was nicknamed by the Arabs Shaitan Lulu (Devil Lulu) . He spoke 
perfect Arabic, and something about him struck terror into the heart 
of every brigand. If the silhouette of the Devil Lulu on horseback 
appeared on the horizon, all Arabs in sight fled. 

Feinberg did more than all his followers together to bring some 
degree of security to the Jewish settlements. He died, not at the hands 
of Arabs, but in his own bed, on his own small piece of land. 

Eliezer heard many stories about the Jewish guards. But what 
pleased him most was the discovery that Jews really were beginning 
to take to the soil. Many of them were living more happily under 


Intrigue and Bribery 

their fig trees now in the Promised Land, despite all their troubles 
and difficulties, than they had ever lived out in the Diaspora. 

They were beginning to learn how to get along agriculturally. 
Now when they bought goats from the Arabs they did not make the 
error of accepting male goats and trying to milk them. 

No longer did they sow wheat on worthless soil. 

No longer did they plant orange groves and expect them to bear 
fruit at once without irrigation. 

No longer did they clean out their stables, throw away the refuse, 
and then have to buy manure from the Arabs to fertilize their fields. 

Slowly progress was being made. 

David Idelovitch, who had come to Jerusalem in the first small 
wave of immigration, was now a recognized teacher of Hebrew. 
Judah Grazovski, for whom Ben Yehuda had obtained a job in a 
grocery store, was now the author of several Hebrew schoolbooks. 
He was later to take the name of Gur. 

Saplings which had been planted ten years ago were already grow 
ing into healthy trees. 


Industrial Childbirth 


rise without a thriving industry of its own and so, although economic 
matters were far out of his field, he took a keen interest in any sign 
he saw of the industrialization of Palestine. 

Those who had settled on the land had had their greatest success 
growing grapes. That led Baron Rothschild to send a Russian who 
had once been an orchestra conductor in Kiev to Bordeaux, France, 
to learn all he could about wine making, and then to Palestine to 
take charge of the new industry. The Palestinian wine was praised 
by everyone who drank it. Soon it was being marketed abroad and 
received prizes at exhibitions and fairs. 

The baron was so pleased that he embarked on a second experi 
ment. The profit of the winegrowers was slight because of the neces 
sity of importing shiploads of bottles. Palestine also needed chimneys 
for kerosene lamps and other glass products. So the baron paid the 
expenses of Meier Dizengoff (who later became the mayor of Tel 
Aviv) to go to Belgium and learn the glassblower s art. In less than 
a year Dizengoff returned and helped establish a factory at Tantura. 

Not long after the factory was opened Dizengoff arrived excitedly 
one day in Jerusalem and called on Ben Yehuda, His hands trembled 


Industrial Childbirth 

as he unwrapped a package and spread the contents on the editor s 

"Look! Made in Israel! The first products of our first real fac 

The gifts he had brought were glass and porcelain jars, bearing 
on their sides the Hebrew words: 

"From the Land of Milk and Honey." 

Then he explained. 

"We do not have milk, but we do have jam and honey. The more 
our orange groves and vineyards flourish, the more bees and the 
more honey. Our factory will turn out thousands of jars like these 
which will be shipped all over the world to advertise the land of the 

Ben Yehuda complimented him but added : 

"I hear that the real need is for wine bottles. I was told today that 
the wine vats at Rishon Le Zion are already overflowing. Being re 
ligious people, they take the Bible literally and are ignorant about 
the aging of wine, thinking it should be bottled and consumed when 
it is new. Have you started making wine bottles yet?" 

Dizengoff assured Ben Yehuda that the factory would soon be 
turning out wine bottles as good as any made in Europe. 

But the day after an initial shipment of wine bottles was made to 
Rishon Le Zion, a report came back of an industrial tragedy. 

Hundreds of the bottles had been filled and corked. But within an 
hour every bottle had broken at the neck. The floor of the winery 
ran ankle-deep in wine. 

A second tragedy quickly followed the first. An epidemic of yel 
low fever and malaria swept through the factory. Dizengoff and his 
wife were among the victims. Many of the workers and their families 
died. Those who did not fled from the seacoast town, cursing the 
place. The factory windows were boarded up. 

Experts came and examined the sand on Tantura s beach and 
reported it highly unsuitable for the making of glass. 

That ended Industrial Experiment No. 2. 

Baron Rothschild at this time was young, still in his forties, and 
he was adventuresome as well as wealthy. He refused to be discour 
aged. Far from Tantura, at Rosh Pinah in Upper Galilee, he estab- 


Tongue of the Prophets 

lished a third industry, a silk factory, knowing that for hundreds of 
years in two neighboring countries, Syria and Lebanon, a thriving 
silk business had been carried on. 

Mulberry trees were planted and huts were built in which the 
children of Rosh Pinah and nearby Safed were to care for the silk 
worms. But the experiment was abandoned when it was discovered 
that there was no one who knew anything about silk weaving. 

Project No. 4 was perfume. The baron sent chemists from France 
to manage the distilling of perfume from flowers at Yessod 
Ha maala. Farmers in the neighborhood began growing geraniums 
and roses on every spare foot of land. But the perfume was not good. 
When it was shipped abroad it found no favor. 

Despite the failure of many of the baron s experiments, there was 
a degree of prosperity in the colonies which he had helped establish. 
Jewish families which had known nothing but persecution and pri 
vation in the ghettos were enjoying, here in Palestine, a relatively 
secure and peaceful existence. Through the philanthropy of the in 
ternational banker they had been enabled to buy land, build houses, 
educate their children, have decent medical care, and produce a 
"pay crop" of oranges and grapes each year. 

But now a nationwide grumble of discontent began to be heard. 
Many of the Jewish settlers resented the paternalism of the plan. 
They complained that they were little better than slaves. They fig 
ured out that they would never be able to repay Baron Rothschild 
for the purchase of land and the construction of homes. 

Most of all, they resented the attitude of the administrators sent 
to Palestine by the baron to manage his affairs. They complained 
that these men often acted like slave owners. 

Jealousies and antagonisms deepened. What little social inter 
course there had been between administrators and their families and 
farmers and their families gradually disappeared. 

Finally the farmers appointed representatives to go to Paris and 
present their complaints verbally. The men came back with a black 
report. The baron had listened but then had practically thrown them 
out of his office, saying that although there might be some slight jus 
tification for their complaints, if the Palestinian Jews were not ap 
preciative of his help, and if they continued to grumble about petty 


Industrial Childbirth 

matters, he would immediately cut off all further financial aid to 

When this report reached Ben Yehuda he was worried. Baron 
Rothschild had no consuming interest in a rebirth of a Jewish state, 
If the Jews of Palestine angered him he would almost certainly 
deviate funds being sent here to other areas where Jews were in need. 
That would cause hardship and suffering among the very people 
who were now complaining. 

For these reasons Ben Yehuda threw his paper into the fight on 
the baron s side. In one article he called on the farmers to stop their 
"nonsense." He likened them to soldiers in an army who must obey 
the orders of a superior, even when thinking such orders foolish. He 
never argued that the administrators were without blame; he merely 
implored the farmers to forget their small grievances. 

But the colonists were in no mood to listen to reason. Many who 
had admired Ben Yehuda now turned against him, accusing him of 
being a traitor to everything he had previously believed. They 
charged that he was now on the side of slavery instead of freedom; 
that he was trying to "sell them out" to the Paris banker. 

But the accusation which really hurt was that Ben Yehuda was 
receiving financial support from the baron for his newspaper and his 
dictionary project (which was true) and that he was merely trying 
to protect his own financial position. 

Mass meetings were held at which paper and editor were de 
nounced. Ben Yehuda s closest friends advised him that it would 
not be wise for him to travel into any of the colonies because of the 
intensity of feeling against him. 

This upsurge of anti-Ben Yehuda sentiment was not merely a 
financial blow. For years his greatest support had been from a small 
intellectual group in Jerusalem and from the inhabitants of the new 
colonies. Frequently he had made tours of the country, getting not 
only new subscribers but also an emotional uplift from seeing the 
development that was taking place. Now such contacts were denied 
him. Also, the Jerusalem intellectual circle was split on the issue. 

A few devoted friends such as David Idelovitch, Judah Grazov- 
ski, and Israel Belkind remained his allies, but all were young and 
had not yet the prestige that they later would acquire. 



Love by Mail 


had a formal photograph taken in a Russian embroidered dress, 
with her hair hanging in long dark braids over her shoulders. 

When Mother Yonas went to Palestine to be with her eldest 
daughter during her dying days she took a -copy of that photograph 
with her. 

After seeing it, Deborah one day from her hospital bed wrote to 
her younger sister: 

"Today Mother showed me your picture. You are as beautiful 
as Aphrodite. I had a dream about you the other night, Pola. I saw 
you standing before me and I said to you: 

" Sister, if you wish to become a princess . . .* " 

The letter ended there. Apparently Deborah had not had the 
strength to finish it. 

When Mother Yonas returned to Moscow one of the first questions 
Pola asked her was: 

"What did Deborah mean that I should do if I wanted to become 
a princess?" 

The mother hesitated, and from her hesitation Pola guessed the 


Love by Mail 

Pola was only nineteen when Deborah died. She was a student at 
the women s branch of the University of Moscow, specializing in 
the natural sciences. But she was not happy because there were few 
opportunities for a girl in Russia in those days to go far along scien 
tific or intellectual roads. 

Frustrated in her dream of a scientific career, Pola began to have 
another vision. The thin, aesthetic face of Eliezer kept coming be 
fore her eyes. She remembered her parents telling her how, when she 
was only an infant, she had cried because the young guest in their 
home in Glubokiah had cut off his curls; how he had carried her 
around the house in his arms; how she had hero-worshiped him even 

She had seen him again when she was six and he was almost 
twenty. A dashing young man, she thought him then. She had even 
had fights with her sister Deborah over whose suitor he really was, 
because once, to make her stop crying, he had laughingly said some 
thing about taking her off to Paris with him. 

But she best remembered the visit he had made to their home in 
Moscow five years ago. She considered herself a "grown-up young 
lady 3 then, although she was only fifteen. By then Eliezer was a 
member of the Yonas family by marriage, for Deborah was his wife. 

Eliezer and Pola had spent a great deal of time together that sum 
mer in Moscow, and they had had some violent arguments. Eliezer 
had told her she was "too Russian," with no real feeling for anything 

But despite such scoldings, Eliezer Ben Yehuda had always re 
mained a romantic figure in Pola s young eyes. She had envied the 
experience her older sister had had, going off to an exciting country 
like Palestine to share an adventurous life with a man who defied 
convention and had the courage of his own deep convictions. 

So Pola one day wrote a letter to Eliezer. She told him that she 
was considering changing her first name from Pola to something 
more Hebraic and would Eliezer please send her some suggestions. 

Back from Jerusalem came a quick reply, Eliezer was delighted 
to hear from her and was happy over her interest in Hebrew. He 
was enclosing a list of twenty names, with a translation of each one. 
Pola should pick the one she most fancied. 

Tongue of the Prophets 

Pola wrote back that she had chosen "Hemda." She had not yet 
informed her family, but from now on Eliezer could address her as 
Hemda. What she did not write was that it was not the Hebrew 
letters of the name that appealed to her, nor even the sound of the 
word, but the meaning of it. Eliezer had written that Hemda meant 
"My Cherished One." 

When Eliezer finally wrote and proposed that Hemda also change 
her last name and become Mrs. Ben Yehuda, Pola wasted no time 
in debate with herself. She knew that this was the career she wanted 
most and had always wanted. 

When she broke the news to her father, he simply shrugged his 
shoulders and said: 

"I suppose you two will be happy, because, after all, you are 
both a little crazy!" 

Mother Yonas did not take the announcement so well. She was 
terrified, she said, that Pola would meet the same fate that Deborah 

But the greatest opposition came from the brothers, sisters, and 
other relatives. They bluntly pointed out the difference in ages. 
They argued that Pola ought to finish her university studies first. 
They warned her how different it was in Jerusalem than in Moscow; 
that she was going to have to renounce civilization when she went 
off to that barbaric part of the world. 

But nothing anyone said had the slightest effect on the head 
strong young woman. She had already quietly begun to sever the ties 
which bound her to family, to friends, and to Moscow. 

Fellow students gave a farewell party for her. The Yonas family 
decided that it would not do to allow so young a girl to go off on so 
long a trip alone. She would be accompanied not only by her father 
and mother, but also by her youngest brother and youngest sister. 

All preparations for the journey had been made, when the letter 

Eliezer Ben Yehuda s neighbors began to get suspicious when he 
had his house painted inside and out. They became more suspicious 
when he had a gardener trim the rosebushes and prune the vines. 
They began whispering to each other when they saw him planting 


Love by Mail 

with his own hands two young eucalyptus saplings at the entrance 
to the house. 

But what made them certain that the rumor being circulated 
around Jerusalem must be true was the sparkle in the young editor s 
eyes. Also, his friends and neighbors noticed that his shoulders sud 
denly were no longer as stooped as they had been since Deborah s 
death. They pointed out that he even greeted the mailman who 
brought the "not wanted" newspapers back to him with something 
less than bitterness. 

No one was ever certain exactly who it was who confirmed the 
rumors. It might have been Ben Yehuda s own mother, for she was 
overjoyed when her son told her that Deborah s young sister had 
agreed to become the second Mrs. Ben Yehuda. 

When the story of Ben Yehuda s impending marriage to Pola 
Yonas was definitely confirmed, the tongues began to wag in earnest. 
Even Eliezer s best friends were against him on this issue. Some used 
the difference in ages as their talking point. Others, infected by his 
own fanatical interest in the language, argued that this was the sec 
ond time he had chosen a girl who knew no Hebrew. 

When the news reached Dr. Schwartz, chief of the Rothschild 
Hospital, he sent for Nissim Behar. 

"Is it true our friend is about to take another wife; a child nearly 
fourteen years younger than he is?" 

The Alliance-school director said the rumor was correct. 

"He has no right to marry this this girl!" said the doctor, look 
ing the schoolmaster in the eye. "You know he has tuberculosis. You 
know Deborah contracted her fatal illness from him. Ben Yehuda 
himself has little longer to remain in this world. It is a crime for him 
to kill another life, especially one so young!" 

Nissim Behar nodded sadly and said: 

"You should know, Doctor, for he is your patient and you at 
tended his first wife. But what is there to do?" 

"One of us must talk coldly to him, and you are the one to do it 
because you are his best friend." 

Ben Yehuda and Behar were accustomed to go on long walks each 
morning. The next day, climbing the Mount of Olives, Behar said: 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"There is something I must tell you, Ben Yehuda, that I know 
will be painful to you. I do it only with the understanding that you 
realize what I am about to say comes from a devoted friend." 

Ben Yehuda looked at the schoolmaster with an expression of 
anguish on his face. 

"I have taken all the blows I can bear. What new catastrophe 
does fate have for me now?" 

Behar then repeated exactly what Dr. Schwartz had told him, 
even including the remark about how little time Ben Yehuda had 
left to live. He concluded with a demand that the marriage con 
tract be broken. 

For a moment Ben Yehuda said nothing. Then he clasped his 
hands behind his back and started walking in the direction from 
which they had come. As Behar caught up with him he tried to talk 
to his friend, saying: 

"Be strong, Ben Yehuda! Remember those words? You said them 
to me one day after my own wife had died. Be strong, you said. 
Now I say your own words back to you." 

Ben Yehuda did not reply. As they approached the house Ben 
Zion and Yemeemah came running to meet their father. He dis 
missed them, sending them into the garden to play, while he went 
to his study, asking Behar to accompany him. There he sat down 
and wrote a short note to Pola Yonas, whom he addressed as Hemda. 

He told her what Dr. Schwartz had reported. He told her that 
the marriage was now out of the question. He concluded : 

"You are free, therefore, and please do not worry about the two 
children. You have no right to sacrifice your life for them and for 
me. They will grow up like all other orphans. Besides, their grand 
mother is here to look after them." 

When he reached the end and signed his name he put the letter 
in an unsealed envelope and handed it to his friend. 

"I beg you to give this to Dr. Schwartz. Ask him to read it and 
then mail it himself so he will be certain it is on its way. Now I 
should like to excuse myself. I wish to be alone." 

The next day Behar and Ben Yehuda took their customary walk 
and talked, as usual, of the affairs of the day. No mention was made 
of the letter or the broken engagement. Day after day they walked 


Love by Mail 

and talked, and not once did the editor reveal what was going on in 
his heart and his mind. 

Ben Zion, the elder child, was puzzled. There was no longer the 
excitement around the house that there had been. His father did 
not even answer when he asked questions about when his new 
mother would arrive. 

For two weeks it went on that way. Then one day a cable came. 


Ben Yehuda showed it to Nissim Behar. 

"What do you suppose it means? 55 

The schoolmaster smiled. 

"I would guess that she is not taking your advice !" 

Two weeks later the letter arrived. It was full of affectionate 
phrases and profuse reassurances. One paragraph said : 

"Please express my thanks to Dr. Schwartz for his special interest 
in my fate. Tell him it has touched me deeply. Also tell him that I 
am coming to you, whether for many years, or for a month, or only 
for a day. Whatever it is, you and I shall spend together the time 
left for the two of us." 

Ben Yehuda handed the letter to Behar, saying: 

"I am grateful to Dr. Schwartz. Now if anything happens to my 
second wife we all have clear consciences. But I am also grateful to 
him that as a result of this correspondence the tie between Hemda 
and me is stronger than ever. Tell Dr. Schwartz that!" 

Ben Yehuda s mother and the two children did not need to read 
the letter to know that things were again as they had been. Once 
more the house hummed with excitement. 

One day Ben Zion was called to his father s study and given some 

"My son, I am going away in a few days to meet your new 
mother. While I am gone you must be head of the household. When 
I return to Palestine I shall send you a cable to meet us. You shall 
hire a carriage and be the head of the reception committee. Be sure, 
now, that you and your sister create a good impression !" 



To Become a Princess . . . 


from Odessa to Constantinople began nosing its way toward shore. 
Suddenly Mother Yonas was beside Pola, saying excitedly: 

"Look, my dear! Look! There is Eliezer!" 

Pola held tightly to the rail and looked. 

He was not at all like the picture she had been carrying in her 
mind. His long blond beard was short-trimmed and pointed. Instead 
of being dressed in the manner of an Orthodox Jew, as he had been 
in Moscow, he now wore elegant European clothes. His trousers 
were checkered and his jacket was of black velvet. He was more frail 
than he had been, which gave him a more youthful appearance. He 
was vibrant with energy. It showed even in the way he walked. He 
did not look at all like a man who had been weighed down for years 
with troubles. There was even a bit of dash and swagger about him. 

Pola stood rigid, trying not to display any reaction, but to herself 
she said: 

"Doesn t he look just like an English artist ! He is more romantic 
in real life than he ever was in my dreams !" 

There was only one touch which annoyed her. On his head he 
wore a red fez. 

To Become a Princess . . . 

She was a little disappointed when he greeted her so formally. 

From the ship they went directly to the hotel rooms EHezer had 
engaged for them. Pola s room was banked deep with flowers. 

In addressing her at dinner he used her self -selected name. 

Father Yonas wheeled on his daughter. 

"What is this name he calls you? 33 

Pola laughed and explained. 

Father Yonas held his hands out in a helpless gesture. 

"Not only do I lose two daughters to this man, but he tries to rob 
me even further by taking away the names I gave you." 

Conversation that first evening was difficult. Eliezer insisted on 
talking Hebrew. He reverted to French only when addressing Pola, 
who was therefore out of the conversation most of the time. 

The two children, Oniah and Peninnah, who were five and seven, 
were put to bed early, and Mother Yonas left with them. Father 
Yonas finally gave up late in the evening. At last Eliezer and Pola 
were alone for the first time. 

Taking her hand, the young editor said : 

"Hemda, I can hardly believe you are here!" 

Then he made his first love speech to her, in the course of which 
he said it was difficult for him to express such intimate thoughts in 
French. She must promise to learn Hebrew quickly. 

As they sat close beside each other he said softly: 

"Hemda, when your sister was in the hospital she told me one 
morning when I went to see her that she had had a dream the night 
before. You appeared before her, looking just as charming as you 
now look to me. As you stood there, she suddenly said to you: 

" Tola, if you wish to become a princess, marry Eliezer/ 

"Of course I pretended to get angry. I said she and I would live 
together for many years, and the subject was dropped. But a few 
days later, as her strength began to fail, she whispered to me that 
she was going to die and hoped that you would take her place after 
she was gone. 

"I would never have told you this unless you had already agreed 
to marry me. It would have been using an unfair weapon. But I 
hope it will make you happy to know you are carrying out your 
sister s last wish." 

Tongue of the Prophets 

Pola tightened the pressure of her hand on Eliezer s and silently 
debated whether she should tell him of the letter she had received 
from Deborah. Instead, she changed the subject. 

It was the wedding day of Eliezer Perlman, now called Ben 
Yehuda, and Pola Yonas, now called Hemda. 

While Mr. and Mrs. Yonas were out making the necessary ar 
rangements, the principals went for a walk. As they started Hemda 
turned to Eliezer, fixed her eyes on his red fez, and said : 

"I hope you do not think me rude, but is it not possible to buy 
a a regular hat down here somewhere?" 

Eliezer blushed and replied: 

"Of course! 53 

A few minutes later they passed a men s shop and he disappeared 
inside. When he came out he had a smart-looking European hat on 
his head. It was only then that he explained that all subjects of the 
Ottoman Empire were morally obligated to wear the fez as a symbol 
of respect for their rulers. Then he added : 

< As long as we are being so frank, I do not much care for that 
foolish little student s hat you wear!" 

So they stopped in a women s shop and bought not only a new 
hat but a chic umbrella, gloves, and a French handbag. 

Although Hemda had lived in busy Moscow, she was impressed 
by the shops of the Galata section, the horse-drawn vehicles, the 
oriental excitement and confusion, and most of all by the Street of 
the Dogs. 

Eliezer explained that for Moslems in Constantinople the dog was 
a sacred animal, not to be killed or even injured under pain of civil 
and ecclesiastical punishment. For some reason the dogs had taken 
over this one particular street. They seemed to know that here they 
would receive especial attention. 

When they arrived back at the hotel, the Yonases were in a state 
of indignation. They had been searching the city for the two young 
people. The assistant Hacham Bashi had already arrived to perform 
the ceremony. 

As the service began Eliezer interrupted with a demand that the 
assistant Hacham Bashi speak exclusively Hebrew. 


To Become a Princess * . * 

Just as the ceremony ended a messenger arrived with word that 
their ship was about to sail without them. There would not even be 
time for a wedding feast. 

With feminine foresight Mother Yonas had procured a roasted 
chicken and several bottles of wine, which she carried herself aboard 
the Russian steamer Zesarevitz. As they reached the dock the boat 
whistle was being blown for the third and last time. 

Father Yonas, although an aristocrat in his inclinations, had in 
sisted they travel in the most humble manner possible (as deck 
passengers) because he said he wanted to enter Israel in austerity, 
to share the experience of those pioneers who were forced by eco 
nomics to travel in this manner. 

They were only a few hours out of Constantinople when Hemda 
received her first Hebrew lesson. She had given Eliezer the keys to 
her baggage. Now, in Russian, she said: 

"Please give me the key to my suitcase. I want to get something." 

As he handed her the key Eliezer said: fe Zeh maf teach.** 

When Hemda asked him what that meant he said it was Hebrew 
for: "This is a key." / 

Slowly the girl repeated the words until glhe had memorized them. 
In later years she would always say that fmafteach" to her was the 
most important word in Hebrew, because it was the "key" which 
Eliezer gave her on her wedding day to the language for which she 
eventually was to develop his own deep love. 

After stops at Smyrna, Alexandria, and Port Said they finally 
came within sight of Jaffa. Standing at the rail peering toward the 
shore, Hemda said: 

"It is just like a giant bird, isn t it? Just like an eagle with its 
wings outspread !" 

Eliezer was vibrant with excitement. This, now, was "his" coun 
try. This was the place where he had suffered so much, yet it was 
the place which meant more to him than any other. In excited 
Russian words he tried to explain it to Hemda. 

"This is our land, Hemda ! This is where we all once lived and 
where we really belong! I hope you feel it and understand!" 

But Hemda did not understand. To her it was just another shore 
line, not nearly so attractive as Constantinople or Smyrna. But she 

Tongue of the Prophets 

knew that if she admitted this to Eliezer he would be unhappy, so 
she made no answer. 

Small boats in the harbor were dancing wildly on the waves, wait 
ing like birds of prey for the signal which would permit them to en 
circle the steamer. 

Government officials boarded the Zesarevitz. There was an in 
spection of passports, a medical examination, then questioning by 
police. Now a flag was hoisted as a sign that the medical men had 
found no contagious diseases aboard. Instantly the small boats 
swarmed in. Hemda clapped her hands excitedly and pointed to 
one in which there were four men. 

"Look, Eliezer! What do all those beautiful flags on that little 
boat mean?" 

Eliezer smiled. 

"One is the flag of the Ottoman Empire. Another is the banner 
of the Cook s travel bureau. Then there s a flag advertising a hotel. 
But wait those four men are all friends of mine ! Four of my young 
Hebrew teachers ! Where did they ever get those banners? They re 
coming for us! Our reception committee!" 

Soon the four men were clambering up the rope ladder. They 
pressed around Eliezer after giving him a military-type salute. They 
talked rapidly in Hebrew. Hemda understood nothing they said, 
Finally Eliezer turned to his bride. 

"My friends offer their congratulations to both of us." 

Hemda in Russian asked Eliezer to thank them. 

By now the steamer was vibrant with the noise of haggling porters, 
shouting boatmen, annoyed officials, and almost hysterical passen 
gers. Hemda was dizzy, but she remembered for years how impressed 
she was by the young Arab boatmen, so sunburned and iron- 
muscled, filling the ship with the noise of their lusty speech and 
filling the air with the gesticulations of their hands. They literally 
tossed the baggage from man to man and finally down into the 
boats. They literally dragged the passengers after them down the 
rope ladders which were flapping loosely in the wind. Those were 
the lucky passengers; the ones who had been cleared by the officials. 
The others waited with panic written on their faces for someone to 
"fix" a permit for them. 


To Become a Princess . . . 

When Eliezer said they must now descend into the small boat, 
Hemda replied: 

"And my family?" 

"They must stay on the ship because they have no entrance per 
mits. But as soon as we get into town we will do everything possible 
to have them released." 

It took a great deal of arguing to persuade Hemda to pull herself 
away from her parents. 

Hemda s reaction to Jaffa was not at all what her sister s had 
been. She found the city gay and exciting. She liked the mixture of 
Arabs, Turks, and oriental Jews swarming through the streets, talk 
ing, singing, and crying their wares. 

They had lunch at a table Eliezer had reserved in a small hotel. It 
was set with flowers and there were bottles of red wine. Friends came 
by and shook the young editor by the hand and stared at his young 
wife. Hemda was annoyed that they all talked only Hebrew. There 
was always the "comedy" of translation. She sensed that all these 
people could speak some language she understood if Eliezer would 
only permit them to. She thought of it as a conspiracy to try to con 
vince her that no one here spoke, or even knew how to speak, any 
thing but the ancient language. 

When the luncheon was nearly over Hemda s family suddenly 
appeared. Father Yonas face was pale with suppressed anger. He 
had revolted bitterly against his reception in this, the land of his 
own ancestors. He had hoped that here, at least and at last, he would 
feel safe ground under his feet; that no one would tell him "this is 
allowed and that is forbidden." 

Eliezer had hired two carriages, drawn by three horses each, for 
the trip to Jerusalem. While the baggage was being loaded he took 
his bride into what she admitted was the most beautiful garden she 
had ever seen. It was just across the street from where they had had 

Although the two carriages were now ready, several of Ben 
Yehuda s friends said that the night before Arab bandits had at 
tacked a party of Jews on their way to Jerusalem and had robbed 
them of all their belongings. Some of the victims had been wounded. 
It would be foolish to travel during the night just to avoid the heat. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Better to start early in- the morning, rest during the midday at the 
halfway spot, Bab el Wad, and make the ascent of the Judean hills 
in the relative cool of the late afternoon. 

Ben Yehuda agreed and sent a telegram to his son, Ben Zion. 

The sunrise the f oflowing morning was so radiant and the air so 
refreshing that Hemda grasped Eliezer s arm and said: 

"It makes me feel as if the world has just been created; as if I 
myself have just been born; as if all life lies ahead of me !" 

"It does," her husband replied, smiling. 

Leaving Jaffa, the road at first ran between groves of orange and 
lemon trees. This being the month of Nisan, the air was heavy with 
the fragrance of fruit blossoms, heady and almost as intoxicating as 
strong wine. Then they drove through fields of growing wheat and 
barley. Then vegetable plots. Hemda, looking for a lake, a river, or 
a small pond and seeing none, asked: 

"How do all these things grow if there is no water?" 

"The groves are irrigated with water from wells," her husband 
replied. "The fields are watered all summer by night dew from 
heaven. In the winter there is much rain." 

Gradually the cool of the morning was conquered by midday heat. 

Often the two carriages had to pull to the side of the road to allow 
vehicles coming from Jerusalem to pass. Each time there would be 
a volley of greetings from those going in the opposite direction. 

"You act as if you were all members of one large family," Hemda 
remarked, to which Eliezer replied: 

"Because we are!" 

Finally the carriages came to a stop at Bab el Wad. The coach 
men put their horses in the stables. The elder Yonases and the two 
children went into the inn to rest. Ben Yehuda and his bride went 
for a walk, then sat under an olive tree. 

Stretched out on her back, looking up at the sky, Hemda said 
that in spite of her imagination and her desire to picture Jerusalem 
as it might be, the closer she approached the city, the more distant 
and blurred it became in her mind s eye. 

"Nevertheless," Eliezer said, "you will be sleeping tonight in the 
Golden City!" 


"Shalom Doddah!" 


self a real man with "responsibilities" while his father was gone. He 
was not content just to collect articles from contributors and deliver 
papers. He spent much time learning the art of typesetting. He also 
began his own writing career, which would someday make him a 
well-known literary figure. One of the many articles he composed 
and persuaded the temporary editor to publish in the Deer was en 
titled: "We Shall Not Give Up Nissim Behar!" It was based on 
rumors that the head of the Alliance school was to be deposed. 

Then came the telegram: 

"We have arrived. Gome and meet us at Bab el Wad. Daddy." 

Ben Zion was as excited as his father had been weeks before over 
the receipt of the cable from Moscow. He took his four-year-old 
sister by the hand and ran to the house of the coachman, who lived 
in another section of Jerusalem, and insisted that they start out im 

It was an "occasion 35 for the small boy. It was his first trip out of 
Jerusalem. Then there was the excitement of meeting Hemda, al 
though he was afraid he was not going to have one tenth the affec 
tion for her that he had had for his own mother. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

They reached Bab el Wad without incident and found the Ben 
Yehuda- Yonas party lined up waiting for their carriages to be 
brought to them. Ben Zion s first impression was that they all looked 
like foreigners, even his own father. 

When Eliezer took his son in his arms to greet him, Ben Zion 
noticed that he appeared younger than he ever had before. 

Then the introductions began. 

"You remember your grandmother, Ben Zion, even if maybe 
Yemeemah doesn t. 

"And here, Ben Zion and Yemeemah, is Hemda Ben Yehuda, 
your new mother!" 

The little girl looked at the ground and shyly said: 

"Shalom. 55 

Ben Zion stared at Hemda. She wore a large fancy hat, unlike 
any he had ever seen on a woman in Jerusalem. She carried a 
bright-colored parasol. There was a pleasant smile in her eyes. With 
a childlike spontaneity of decision Ben Zion made up his mind he 
liked her, so he reached up, put his arms around her neck, kissed 
her affectionately, and said: 

"Shalom, Doddah!" 

Yemeemah, taking the cue, then did likewise. 

For Hemda the happiness of that moment was marred by the 
necessity of responding to the children through a translator. Turning 
to Eliezer, with a choked-up voice she said : 

"Tell them quickly that they must not use that word doddah. I 
know that it is Hebrew for aunt/ Tell them I was their aunt but 
now I am something more. I can t be their real mother, but I shall 
try to take her place. They call you abba, which means daddy, not 
father. They called Deborah mother. But why should they not call 
me imma, which means mamma 5 ? * 

The children agreed. They would never use the word for 
"mother 5 to Hemda, but they would call her "imma." 

It was three o clock when they began the ascent of the Judean 
hills. At first the horses seemed to enjoy the climb, but soon they 
were sweating. Often the passengers had to get out of the carriages 
to Kghten the load. 

It was nine o clock when they saw the first lights of Jerusalem. 


"Shalom Doddah!" 

One hour later they drove into the city. The streets were unlighted, 
which meant that Hemda saw nothing but the shadowy outline of 
buildings. Few human beings were in sight. Finally the carriages 
pulled to a halt and Eliezer said softly: 

"This is your house !" 

As he led her across the threshold, her heart sank. It was a house, 
all right, but not a home. The entrance hall was also partly a 
dining room. Overhead there was an enormous vaultlike dome, 
similar to the cupola of a Christian church. Off the circular hall 
were the bedrooms. 

The reception committee consisted of Ben Yehuda s mother, who 
had put on her Sabbath dress for the occasion, and her brother, the 
official from the Russian consulate, with his wife, who was even 
younger than the new Mrs. Ben Yehuda. 

Hemda was tired. She went to bed almost immediately. As she 
tossed herself to sleep she wondered what her first impressions of 
Jerusalem would be when she saw it in the morning. Whether Jeru 
salem appealed to her or not, she had made her decision. Despite 
what she might think of the place, it was now her city as well as her 
husband s. 

When Hemda awoke the next morning the first thing she noticed 
was a bouquet of roses on a chair beside her bed. Drops of morning 
dew were still on the petals. She had almost forgotten, but this was 
Eliezer s way of saying that he had remembered. This was her 
twentieth birthday. As she bent over to smell the flowers Eliezer 
came in. She smiled her thanks to him. 

"Good morning, my husband. And why are you up so early?" 

"You will soon learn, Bitti, that I never miss the sunrise." 

"Bitti? What does that mean?" 

"Bitti means my child. It is an affectionate little word which just 
seems to fit you. 3 

"I like its sound. I hope you will call me that often!" 

At breakf ast Hemda realized how sizable a family she had. There 
were her own father and mother, Eliezer s mother, her two step 
children, her brother and sister, and Eliezer s niece, a woman about 
thirty-five years old whose parents had sent her to Jerusalem at the 


Tongue of the Prophets 

time of Deborah s illness, hoping that perhaps she might become the 
second Mrs. Ben Yehuda. There were ten at the table, a big respon 
sibility for a girl of twenty. 

After breakfast Eliezer took her for a walk in the garden. It was 
not as magnificent as the one in Jaffa, but there were olive and fig 
trees, grapevines and almonds. It was Passover eve and spring was 
in all its beauty. 

Eliezer showed her the two eucalyptus trees he had planted for 

"This one," he said, pointing to the more delicate of the two, "I 
have named Hemda." 

"So we shall call the other Eliezer, yes?" 

As they returned to the house and entered her husband s study, a 
large room with a domed ceiling, Hemda s first reaction was dis 
pleasure that the windows were covered with an iron grillwork that 
made them look like windows of a prison. The walls were a full 
three feet thick. A wide stone divan ran along one entire wall. It 
was covered with cushions in the oriental manner. In the center of 
the room was a round table littered with papers, and against a wall 
was Eliezer s desk, deep with notes in his own delicate handwriting. 

Eliezer sat down beside his wife on the divan, produced a Bible, 
opened it at the first page, and asked her to read. 

"But, my dear husband, I hardly know the Hebrew alphabet !" 

Ignoring her remark, he pointed to the first word in the first verse 
of the first chapter of Genesis and said : 

"That is bereshith. It means at first, or in the beginning. Now 
look at it again and repeat the sound." 

The second word she learned that morning was "created," and 
the third "God." The lesson went on for half an hour. Hemda s 
head was swimming. 

Finally Eliezer put the Bible away and asked : 

"Would you like to go for a walk?" 

They wandered first through the streets of the city. Hemda, in 
her childlike imagination, had thought of Jerusalem as like Rome 
or Athens, which she knew about from pictures and paintings. But 
Jerusalem was unlike either of them. It had no great crumbling 
forum. Its streets were narrow and ugly. They were full of refuse. 


"Shalom Doddah!" 

Animals and even children played in the garbage. Hemda was de 
pressed by it. 

Later they climbed the rough path that ascends the Mount of 
Olives. Then they threaded their way through rows of tombstones 
until they came to Deborah s grave. At her feet were the even 
fresher graves of her three children. 

They stood in silence for many minutes, without sharing their 

Finally Hemda lifted her head, looked at Eliezer, then put her 
arms around him. From that moment on she realized that her life 
was not her own. 


Like a Beautiful Flame 


household to her mother-in-law so she could devote all her energy to 
her two stepchildren who had been so neglected by their invalid 
mother and later by their bereaved father. 

Mrs. Perlman had dressed ten-year-old Ben Zion like an Ashke- 
nazic boy, in a frock coat, long trousers, and a large-brimmed hat 
which, in the Orthodox manner, he always kept on hi the house. 
He even had earlocks like those Eliezer wore when he arrived so 
many years ago in the village of Glubokiah. 

Yemeemah, although four, had never had her hair trimmed. Her 
clothes were hand-me-downs from Moscow, much too large for 

"She looks like a dwarf from the land of Lilliput," Hemda com 

The two children were pale, emaciated, and walked as slowly as 
if already on their way to the grave. They spoke with timidity, had 
no playmates, and knew no child games. 

First Hemda took scissors to their hair, to the dismay of the 
paternal grandmother. As she did so she smiled, remembering her 

1 60 

Like a Beautiful Flame 

parents story of how she had cried when Eliezer cut off his earlocks. 

Then she cut the legs off Ben Zion s long trousers, making him 
look like a boy rather than a dwarfed man. She made little dresses 
for Yemeemah which actually fit. 

She bought two large hats in a German shop in Jerusalem so the 
children would have protection from the sun and their skin would 
not turn the shade of an Arab s. 

Now the offspring of Ben Yehuda the Rebel began to attract more 
attention on the streets of Jerusalem than ever before. In addition to 
being the only Hebrew-speaking children in the city, they now also 
looked different from any others because of their European dress. 
But that did not bother Hemda. 

Next she dug out of one of her suitcases a large doll she had 
brought for Yemeemah. At first the child was terrified because it 
was so lifelike, but eventually she overcame her fear of even touch 
ing it. 

Then Hemda bought a rubber ball and taught the children how 
to throw and catch it. But they were so self-conscious that they were 
reluctant to play, even with a ball. 

There was great danger now of the Ben Yehuda home losing 
entirely its Hebrew character. Mrs. Perlman spoke Yiddish. Hemda 
spoke Russian and French. Ben Yehuda was being subjected to 
violent criticism by his colleagues. Why did he not do something to 
prevent this? Why had he not taken a Hebrew-speaking wife? 

His enemies rejoiced. The structure had begun to crumble. Ob 
viously he was having to abandon his own teachings himself. How 
could he now expect others to follow? 

Eliezer met this situation by doing a decisive thing. He had the 
printing press moved into his home. That added four or five printers 
to the population of the house. All were men who had been given 
their jobs with the understanding that they would never speak any?- 
thing but Hebrew. As they worked putting Ben Yehuda s articles 
into type, they sang. Hemda said they sang more than they worked. 
They sang nothing but Hebrew songs : "The Sun of the Spring," 
"The Rose of Jacob," and "Jerusalem." 

Father Yonas, tired of the same three songs over and over again, 
morning, noon, and night, composed a fourth for them. He called 


Tongue of the Prophets 

it "Hebrew Is Our Language" and taught the children as well as 
the printers to sing iL 

Then there was Chain ha Halabi, a Syrian servant who ran 
errands for Ben Yehuda and helped in minor ways on the paper. 
Now he was given a new assignment. He was to be with the children 
from the time they arrived home from school until they had their 
dinner and went to bed; a male governess. He was to speak nothing 
but Hebrew to them. Also, he was to correct the Hebrew pronuncia 
tion of everyone in the house, so that eventually all the words might 
be said in the same melodious oriental way. 

Nevertheless, Hemda realized that in the long run it was up to 
her to decide whether this would remain a Hebrew household or 
not. So she began to spend all her spare time over her books. 

Bay after day she would sit in one of the deep window sills, 
curled up on a pillow with a Hebrew grammar in her lap, looking 
occasionally out at what she had nicknamed "our Garden of Eden." 
Often tears would well up in her eyes because of her fear that she 
would never be able to learn the language. 

Although she had previously mastered several other languages, 
she found Hebrew grammar next to impossible. 

"Never," die once told her father, "will the Semitic spirit be able 
to vanquish the Slav in me." 

But she kept all these doubts from Ben Yehuda, Day after day 
she took lessons from him. He taught her first to read the entire 
Book of Genesis, but each day he gave her a sprinkling of purely 
household words to learn. 

Although he corrected her patiently, she persisted for weeks in 
saying the Hebrew word for "he" when she meant "she," and mixed 
up her present, past, and future tenses. 

But finally, after three months of study, she made a little speech 
to her husband, all in Hebrew: 

"Eliezer, I did not think that this day would ever come, but I 
have now a big atinouncement to make to you. Beginning right 
now, I wish you to speak nothing but Hebrew to me. If you talk 
slowly I think I will understand. I do not yet promise that I shall 
always reply in Hebrew, but someday that also may even be pos- 


Like a Beautiful Flame 

Eliezer smiled, kissed her, and called her "Bitti" with an extra 
degree of warmth. 

In all this period Hemda asked her husband not to invite guests to 
the house. She did not want to meet people until she could talk to 
them in his language. The only exceptions were Nissim Behar and 
Hayim Calmi, close friends, with whom she spoke French. 

Six months to the day after Hemda arrived in Palestine, on the 
Feast of Sukkoth, she walked into Ben Yehuda s study and made a 
second announcement. In almost perfect Hebrew she said: 

"I know you have waited patiently for what I now say, so I hope 
you will be pleased. From this moment on I shall speak exclusively 
Hebrew, not only with you but with everyone we meet. 

"I do not yet have as large a vocabulary as I would like, but I 
feel able to conduct a two-way conversation on most subjects. If you 
wish to start planning trips for us, I promise never to embarrass you 
by speaking a foreign language again." 

"Bitti," he replied with a trace of tears in his eyes, "you make 
me very happy. You are like a beautiful flame, giving both light and 
warmth. I shall thank you repeatedly for what you have brought 
into my life !" 

Hemda s reward for her accomplishment was a trip to the Jewish 
settlements. When Eliezer asked her if this would please her, she 
clapped her hands and kissed him on the forehead. 

As they made plans for the trip Eliezer smiled and said: 

"It will be a real honeymoon, Bitti. Gall it our second if you wish, 
but really it is our first; the first trip alone. To make it more exciting, 
we shall do part of it by railway." 

"Railway? Railway to where?" 

"I thought I had told you. The new railway between Jerusalem 
and Jaffa has started running. Maybe you will laugh at it, but to 
many of our people who have never seen a train it is like a miracle." 

The train consisted of a small engine and three miniature cans. 
As the Ben Yehudas took their places she said: 

"It is really like a plaything, Eliezer, isn t it?" 

The conductor apologized for the lateness in starting. This rail 
way, he said, had more problems than any other in the world. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Jews who lived anywhere within a mile or two of the right of way 
congregated twice a day to watch with infinite excitement the slow 
passage of the train. 

But the Arabs reacted differently. To them this was an instrument 
of the devil. The more religious the Arab, the more he felt it his 
holy duty to destroy the monster that screamed up and down the 
Palestinian hills belching fire and smoke. In superstitious fear the 
Arabs at night placed large rocks between the rails. 

"The trouble is/ 5 the conductor explained, "our timetable allows 
no time for the removal of these Arab barriers. How late we are 
depends entirely on how many Arabs went without their sleep to 
place how many rocks on the tracks during the night. 35 

But when the Arabs discovered that the rocks, no matter how 
high they piled them, did not defeat the devil on wheels, they 
adopted another technique. They gathered in droves on the right of 
way and defied the engineer to run them down. This called for more 
strategy than strength on the part of the train crew. 

There was also a certain not entirely unlaudable nonchalance 
about the way the train was run. If some prominent Palestinian or 
distinguished visitor from abroad sent word that he would be late 
making the tram, the train would wait for him. Or if some woman 
passenger dropped her umbrella out the window, the engineer would 
stop and the conductor would wander back looking for the lost 

In Jaffa, Ben Yehuda insisted on taking Hemda to the homes of 
many friends before going on to the settlements. He did not admit 
it, but he wanted to show off her ability to speak Hebrew, and his 
wife, knowing- it, tried to put on a good performance. Never once 
did she allow a Russian, French, or Yiddish word to slip its way 
into her conversation. 

Jehiel Michael Pines, Israel Belkind, and many of Ben Yehuda s 
other friends expressed their astonishment. Some refused to believe 
that six months ago Hemda had known no Hebrew. Several accused 
Ben Yehuda of playing a joke on them. 

The story spread quickly through Jaffa and soon, wherever the 
Ben Yehudas went, a crowd gathered and there was a hushed silence, 


Like a Beautiful Flame 

as if an opera singer were about to begin her great aria, and when 
Hemda finished speaking there would be a babble of comment. 

This was one of Eliezer s moments of glory. Here, in the person 
of his second wife, was living, talking proof that it could be done. 
Just half a year after setting foot on Jewish soil Mrs. Ben Yehuda 
was talking Hebrew, if not like a scholar, at least like a normal in 
telligent person; talking of the weather, of their railway journey, of 
Jerusalem, of common everyday matters. If Hemda could do it, so 
could others. 

EHezer did not say all these things with his lips. His whole attitude 
said them. He was an often defeated man reveling now in this hour 
of small triumph. His eyes sparkled. His shoulders, Hemda noticed, 
were thrown back at a defiant angle. He had not coughed once all 

But that first night Hemda in her exhaustion said to her husband : 

"Eliezer, I know how happy you have been today, but now we 
must go on to the settlements. I cannot possibly go through my 
performance 3 again tomorrow. I felt all day like a dancing bear in 
a circus!" 

The next day, Friday, they started out in an "omnibus" drawn by 
three very old and lazy horses. 

What Hemda saw as the carriage laboriously made its way down 
deep-rutted roads through clusters of Arab huts frightened her. She 
kept a handkerchief to her face to ward off the stench which, Eliezer 
explained, came from fires over which Arab women were baking 

"But why should smoke have such a vile smell, Eliezer?" 

"Because, Bitti, the only fuel these people have is dried manure; 
dried human and animal dung." 

Hemda could see that the same windowless huts served as shelter 
for both man and beast. At the entrance to several she noticed old 
women, obviously blind, sitting grinding corn just as their ancestors 
had done for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Hemda shud 
dered and held the handkerchief closer to her nose. 

"Cheer up," Eliezer said, "we shall soon be approaching Rishon 
Le Zion." 

But what if the Jewish settlements were even a little like these 

Tongue of the Prophets 

Arab places? How much could the Jewish immigrants have done in 
a mere ten years to change this ancient and filthy way of life? 

So Hemda was afraid to look when her husband suddenly shouted 
out enthusiastically: 

"Look, Bitti! Off on the horizon, just to the left, you can see the 
roof of the synagogue of Rishon Le Zion ! M 


Printer s Ink 


Rishon Le Zion simultaneously. The sun was just going over the 
horizon as their carriage approached the settlement, which meant 
that all work must cease immediately for those following Orthodox 

Years later Hemda wrote in a book: 
"Never in all my life had I seen such a beautiful village!" 
As soon as the red roof of the synagogue came in sight the land 
scape suddenly changed. Now the road was lined with orange trees 
and mulberries. There were fields of grapes and beds of flowers. The 
predominating color became green instead of brown; green of many 
shades, sprinkled with dots of brighter hues. 
Ben Yehuda became rhapsodic as he grasped Hemda s hand 
This, Bitti, is our earth ! Here Jews have changed the desert into 
a Garden of Eden. Look ! Here we have triumphed, just as someday 
we shall triumph over all the hills and deserts of the Holy Land! 3 * 

As they drove into the settlement they saw men, women, and 
children streaming from a low wide building. They all seemed 
cleanly dressed and happy. Each had a small parcel under the arm. 
They were on their way from the public baths. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Some of the houses were painted white, others pink, yellow, blue, 
and red, which prompted Hemda to remark: 

They look like flowers in neat little rows in a garden, don t they, 
EBezer? But what is that long low building with so many windows? 
It looks like a museum. Does someone live there? 3 * 

Eliezer laughed. 

That is the stable, BittL Just horses live there." 

Hemda thought of the Arab villages, where no one was housed as 
well as animals were here, 

In one street there were some small children at play. They politely 
said "Shalom" to the two strangers and then went back to their 
game. Hemda asked Eliezer why just hearing this commonplace 
Hebrew greeting had put such a bright light on his face. 

"No, Bitti, it was not their shalom. 5 It was something else. Per 
haps you missed it, but I heard the words they were saying to each 
other even before they looked up and saw us. A few years ago I 
would not have believed it possible. But, Bitti, they were talking 
Hebrew to each other! Children, speaking Hebrew of their own 
volition ! Imagine that !" 

They headed immediately for the home of David Idelovitch, the 
young man who had arrived in the first wave of immigration and for 
whom Ben Yehuda had found a job making knife blades in a Ger 
man workshop. Now he was one of the best Hebrew teachers in 

Af ter the evening meal the house filled up with young people who 
sang Hebrew songs and told stories of their adventures in helping to 
conquer the desert. 

The next day the Ben Yehudas celebrated the Sabbath by making 
a house-to-house tour. 

The only man in Rishon Le Zion who did not speak Hebrew was 
Baron Rothschild s administrator, but few of the women could even 
understand the questions Hemda asked them in Hebrew. They ex 
cused themselves on the ground that "sickness and all the difficulties 
and demands" of their pioneering life had left no time for mastering 
a new language. 

Hemda, determined to keep her promise, insisted on conversing 
through an interpreter with the women of Rishon Le Zion, many of 

Printer s Ink 

whom had been in Palestine for years and some of whom had been 
born there. 

"How do you like life in Rishon Le Zion?" Hemda would ask in 

Then Idelovitch or someone else would repeat the question to the 
woman of the house in French or Yiddish. 

"I have been happier these last few years than ever before in my 
life, even though I do work harder," the woman would reply in 
Yiddish or French. 

Then the interpreter would translate the answer into Hebrew for 

It was a little comedy, for Hemda could easily have carried on 
the entire conversation herself in the woman s language. It was even 
more amusing when Hemda realized that six months ago the situa 
tion had been just reversed. 

In every house the men s conversation, from the first "shalom" of 
greeting to the final "shalom" of good-by, was filled with politics, 
which meant the issue of Baron Rothschild and his administrators 
versus the settlers. And each conversation eventually turned to a dis 
cussion of the Deer . The men of Rishon Le Zion were almost brutal 
in the frankness of their criticism. 

The Deer gave too much news of Jerusalem and not enough about 
the colonies. 

Ben Yehuda defended the Rothschild administrators too much 
and too seldom took the side of the settlers. 

They did not like the paper on which the Deer was printed. They 
even went so far as to complain about typographical errors. 

They said too much of the paper was written by Ben Yehuda him 
self. Why didn t he print articles by others, with a different style 
and different point of view? 

Then they discussed the new Hebrew words which Ben Yehuda 
sprinkled through each issue. What was the origin of these words? 
Was it true that he invented many of them himself? If so, what 
right did he have to originate words? Shouldn t everyone have a 
voice in deciding such a vital matter as enlarging the language? 

It pained Hemda to see him subjected to such an ordeal, almost 
as if he were on trial for a crime. She tried unobtrusively to lenii 


Tongue of the Prophets 

her moral support. Several times, when he began to cough or 
seemed worn out, she found a subtle way to bring the visit to a 

Nearly everyone wanted to know how the Hebrew dictionary was 
progressing and how soon it would be ready. The first time such a 
question was asked, Ben Yehuda answered by pointing to his wife 
and saying: 

"It all depends on her/* 

Hemda tried not to show her astonishment. 

"On her? 3 * someone asked. "Surely she is not going to make the 

"I mean," Ben Yehuda replied, "it depends on her help. The 
more help she can give me in my other work, the more time I shall 
have for my dictionary." 

On the way home Eliezer announced that he was taking back 
with him more new subscriptions to the Deer than he had ever 
obtained before on such a trip. 

As they discussed the future of the weekly Hemda asked: 

"Why wouldn t it be a good idea for me to write letters to many 
of tlie people whom we have met, suggesting that they send us news 
from the settlements?" 

"It would be," Eliezer replied, "except that many of them would 
expect to be paid, and others will presume that because they cor 
respond for the paper they have a right to influence its policies. I m 
willing to sacrifice a great deal, but not my principles. You have 
seen yourself the opposition even among my friends. A man must be 
strong to face it, but with your help now, I think it will be much 
easier. 35 

That gave Hemda an opening to ask what he had meant about 
the additional help he expected from her. 

"For one thing," he replied, "I want you to start writing articles 
for the Deer." 

"But, Eliezer, I am not a writer, I am a chemist. I have no desire 
t be a writer. Besides, I don t know the language well enough." 
> Ben Yehuda made a gesture as if to sweep aside all her arguments. 


Printer s Ink 

"Remember, I have proof of your writing ability. Have you for 
gotten all the letters you wrote me from Moscow? 5 * 

"But, Eliezer, it s one thing to write a letter; quite another to 
write articles for a paper !" 

"Your letters were beautifully written, Bitti. They were even more 
beautiful than the famous letters of Madame de Sevign6. As for the 
language, I shall correct what you write before it is set into print." 

When Hemda persisted in her refusal, he took a new line of 

"This is not just a matter of filling up columns or satisfying a few 
hundred subscribers who cry for fresh material, or even of giving me 
more time to work on the dictionary. You must understand what a 
vital contribution you can make to the creation of a living, breathing, 
vibrant new Hebrew language. 

"The hour demands that women enter the field of Hebrew litera 
ture. The language needs a feminine touch. You can help give it 
the softness it lacks, the flexibility, the delicacy, the subtle nuances/ 

As Hemda thought back later on this conversation she realized 
that it was the final speech which won her. 

Her first contributions to the Deer were entitled "Letters from 
Jerusalem." She patterned them after the letters of Jean Joseph 
Charles Louis Blanc, in which the celebrated French journalist dis 
cussed affairs of the day as if he were writing to a friend. In her 
letters Hemda wrote about life in the Holy City in an intimate, 
feminine style. 

More and more Hemda began to share her husband s professional 
problems. Gradually she eased the demands on his time. Gradually 
the fanatic look in his eyes came into hers too. 

Their chief worry, always, was financial: where to obtain the 
funds for rolls of paper, stamps, the wages of printers, and still have 
enough left for bread. 

Then there was Ben Yehuda s desire for foreign literary contri 
butions for which he would not have to pay. Together he and 
Hemda made a list of half a dozen young Hebrew writers scattered 
around Europe, and she wrote a pleading letter to each of them ex 
plaining how hungry Jews in Palestine were for European ideas. 
The percentage of affirmative replies was good. Now the size of the 


Tongue of the Prophets 

paper was increased. The back page was devoted to advertisements. 
One day, looking over the latest issue, the editor said to his wife : 

"If we could only get a few more advertisements, I could afford 
to add a two-page literary supplement." 

Hemda made no comment, but the next day she started out as an 
advertising solicitor. She discovered that the businessmen of Jeru 
salem had a queer attitude toward advertising. They considered it 
an indication of a firm s approaching bankruptcy, 

One of the city s most successful merchants told her that even if 
she offered to insert an advertisement without charge he would still 
refuse to allow his firm s name in the paper. 

In a shop specializing in women s wear she found some em 
broidered dresses on a rack in an obscure corner and talked so 
vociferously to the owner about advertising them that he finally 
sighed and gave in. Within a few days he had sold all the dresses 
and became a regular advertiser. 

Hemda received no congratulations for that success because the 
profit all went to pay for a subsequent piece of folly. She was in 
another dress shop and was telling the owner of the success his rival 
had had. In the second shop she had seen some old-fashioned 
women s suits which the merchant had imported from Vienna, so 
she asked: 

"Why don t you advertise these?" 

"If I did, would it influence you to buy one yourself? 9 

Hemda could think of nothing to say but "Yes." 

The deal which was finally consummated provided that Hemda 
would buy one of the Viennese suits, paying half in cash, half with 
an ad. 

The advertisement bore no fruit and was the last one tHe mer 
chant ever took. But Hemda, having paid a goodly sum for "half 
a suit, * had to wear it. It was many sizes too large and looked like an 
ancient hand-me-down from a prosperous relative with very ba<d 

Up to this time no one had ever bothered about setting up a book 
keeping system for the paper, so Hemda undertook that additional 


Printer s Ink 

Then she began to assist Ben Yehuda with work on the dictionary 
itself. She wrote letters to important personages in Europe, soliciting 
their support, copied philological material, and even helped search 
through musty volumes for traces of Hebrew words. 

During the second six months of their marriage the bonds which 
held them together grew strong, and a beautiful companionship 
developed, despite the great difference in ages. 

Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who appeared to the world as a fanatic, had 
a warm side to his nature too. But Hemda knew better than anyone 
else his singleness of purpose, how often his mind was occupied 
solely with academic matters, how primarily the scholar he was. 

Hemda never forgot Deborah s story of the time she and her 
young husband were walking together in the woods. They sat on a 
log to rest. It was cool and pleasant in the shade of the trees, 
Deborah felt in a romantic mood, but suddenly she saw a scorpion 
and, jumping up, shouted in Hebrew : 

"Help, Eliezer! A scorpion !" 

Ben Yehuda did not come immediately to her rescue. Instead, 
very reproachfully, as a teacher to an errant pupil, he said: 

"Deborah, how many times have I told you that the Hebrew word 
for scorpion 3 is akrab and not akreb!" 

Saul Killed Thousands 


younger than her husband, it took her a very short time to establish 
herself as the ruler of the household and the final authority when 
any important domestic decision was to be made. 

Eventually she found a new house for them on the upper Jaffa 
road, opposite the government hospital and next door to the police 
station, which the brothers Kukiah agreed to lease to her for ten 
years. The garden was lined with great acacias and was surrounded 
by a high wall, giving the privacy Hemda wanted so much. 

About this time she began writing a fashion column, much to 
the disgust of Orthodox Jerusalemites, who contended that this 
was the extreme in the sacrilegious use of the holy language. 

With Eliezer*s help she even created a new Hebrew word for what 
British and American women called "fashion 31 and the French called 
mode. The word was ofnah, derived from the ancient Hebrew 
word off en, meaning style or manner. For many years the women of 
Jerusalem fought against this word, preferring to say modah, be 
cause it was more like the word Paris used. 

In the Ben Yehuda camp there was one real rebel who, although 

Saul Killed Thousands 

he had affection for his "mother," was determined not to acquiesce 
as his father had done. Ben Zion later in life wrote: 

"I insisted on showing my new mother that I had ideas of my own 
and therefore refused to surrender to her will and whims, for I 
considered myself heir presumptive and determined that my place 
should not be usurped by anyone else." 

Ben Zion was a little older when he became involved in what he 
called "My First Scandal." He told about it in this manner: 

"One day the news reached me that the Great Donor, which was 
the nickname we had for Baron Rothschild, was planning a second 
visit to our land. This was enough of a spark to revive in me an idea 
which had been in my heart and mind for some time, the idea of a 
Hebrew army. 

"I was still then only eleven or twelve years old, but this is what I 

"I called my young sister Yemeemah, my child-uncle Oniah and 
my child-aunt Peninnah, who were both younger than I was, and 
two or three other little friends to a meeting in the full of the moon. 
This was to be a secret meeting at which I would expose my idea for 
an army for our people. I realized that for such a project a great deal 
of money would be needed. 

"Oniah, who called himself my uncle, got cold feet and refused 
to participate. The other children, while in favor of my idea, refused 
to have their names mentioned, being afraid of their parents. So they 
appointed me to launch the project by myself in the form of a letter 
to Baron Edmond de Rothschild, which I agreed to do. 

"After much serious deliberation with myself I wrote what I 
called A Letter of Freedom for an Israeli Army* and I read it to 
the others. A majority of the group agreed to it and the letter was 
sent off." 

Ben Zion addressed the communication like this: 

Great Sire, Baron Edmond de Rothschild. 
Paris Palace, 

Next to the Palace of the President, 
Paris, France. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

When the boy was asked later where he got such an address he 
explained that the principal of the school he attended once told the 
class that Baron Rothschild "lived in a palace in Paris more beauti 
ful than the home of the President of France." 

The letter, which the boy wrote in French, read as follows: 

Do not be surprised to receive this communication from 
your faithful servant. 

The current events in some of the colonies of Your Excel 
lency, at which a few farmers have been killed by their own 
so-called Arab guards, have caused great disturbance and ex 
citement among the Jews of the country. 

It is because of this that I, the undersigned, on behalf of my 
many friends, boys and girls (already a few hundreds) , appeal 
to Your Excellency with this proposition, daring, perhaps, at 
first sight. 

I am ready to undertake the responsibility for the formation 
of a Hebrew army which will defend the colonies of Your Ex 

This army, like the French army, will be made of Jews and 
Arabs, the latter to be named Ugion Etrangdre* 

As it is clear to me that such an army requires great funds, I 
propose to start small. One hundred men will be sufficient for 
the beginning, eighty Jews and twenty Arabs. 

According to my estimate, it will be necessary to have one 
hundred pounds per month, in addition to the money required 
for uniforms and armament. 

In order that Your Excellency will not suspect us of desiring 
the whole sum immediately, we shall appreciate it if we receive 
by the return of the mail the first one hundred napoleons for 
the purchase of uniforms for the officers. 

We have already also started maneuvers. We also have al 
ready a flag which is herewith enclosed, along with my picture 
when I was four years old. The flag was drawn for us by David 
Idelovitch from Rishon Le Zion, whom I call my uncle. This 
banner, as Your Excellency sees, is white, like the color of Is 
rael in its white conscience. 


Saul Killed Thousands 

Your Excellency will be pleased to hear that I have trans 
lated into Hebrew, for the purpose of a marching song, the first 
verse of the French "Marseillaise," in abbreviation. 

In olden times we had Samsons, Maccabees, Bar-kochbas, 
Why should we not today have "Rothschilds"? 

Yes, Rothschilds, for this will be the name of our soldiers. 
Rothschilds with rifles and many napoleons, for, according to 
the Hebrew saying, "Money is the answer for everything." 

Please, Your Excellency, answer with money and your name 
will be written in the history of Israel not only as our "Great 
Donor" but also as "Leader of the Army of Israel." 

Saul has killed thousands. 

Your Excellency will kill tens of thousands ! 

I sign, with complete humbleness, 

Ben Zion Ben Yehuda, 
Colonel of the Hebrew Army. 

"Days, weeks, months passed without a reply from Paris. Then 
one day my father s friend, David Idelovitch, whom I called uncle, 
arrived from Rishon Le Zion, together with the secretary of Baron 
Rothschild, to see my parents, and said that the baron was shocked 
at the receipt of the letter, saying that this was the biggest scandal in 
the history of our land and that he therefore decided not to carry 
through his visit to Palestine as he had planned. 

"The baron said that if the son of Ben Yehuda, his great and de 
voted friend, could write such stupid things in order to get funds, 
he felt obliged to withdraw his interest in various undertakings in 
our country, and of course withdraw his support of my father s 

"Needless to say, both my parents were shocked and dumfounded. 
An investigation was made and the perpetrator was found to be my 
self. I was brought before my parent and I acknowledged my guilt, 
but then I quickly added: 

" But I do not retract! 

"There was then a big uproar which was quieted down by the in 
tervention of my uncle from Rishon Le Zion. He influenced the 


Tongue of the Prophets 

secretary to the baron and persuaded him to forget it and consider it 
a dead thing, which the latter promised to do." 

Despite the necessity of regulating the impetuosity of young Ben 
Zion, this period of Eliezer Ben Yehuda s life was probably the least 
troublous he had ever known. 

Hemda faithfully kept her promise to follow in her sister s foot 
steps. There was just one exception. If there were a shortage of food, 
which there often was, she divided what they had in exactly equal 
portions. She refused to "starve" herself, as Deborah had so often 

Despite Ben Zion s prank, the Ben Yehudas continued to receive 
a subsidy of ten napoleons per month from Baron Rothschild. The 
newspaper brought in a profit of one or two napoleons a week. In 
addition there were occasional "windfalls," like the one thousand 
rubles Eliezer received from a Russian publisher for a small diction 
ary, the sums paid for articles from the Deer reprinted in other pub 
lications, and the fee received for Ben Yehuda s translation into He 
brew of Jules Verne s Around the World in Eighty Days. 

One minor problem which developed in these days was a family 
conflict over Hemda s insistence on regular baths for the children. 
There was no bathroom, no bathtub, no hot water, all of which 
made bathing a rather complicated procedure. The naked child 
would stand in a large copper basin in the middle of the room, 
would soap himself, and then would be given a cold shower by 
Hemda from a pitcher. Ben Zion led in the rejoicing when Arabs one 
night stole the copper basin. But Hemda somehow managed to save 
money for another. 

In this period Eliezer was spending much time searching through 
Spanish, Italian, and Egytian literature for "lost" Hebrew words 
and would often come from his study with a book in his hand and 
read the family a passage he considered especially beautiful. Hemda 
required the children to memorize many of these selections. 

But the tranquillity of the home was shattered by what Ben Zion 
later called his "Second Scandal." As he told it: 
- "I came back from a -visit in the colonies one day full of excite 
ment at what I had seen, and a new idea was born in my mind : 

Saul Killed Thousands 

a newspaper for the children of Jerusalem and the settlements. 

"One day as I was walking through the Old City I stopped as 
usual at the stationery store of Mr. Hagis, who was holding in his 
hand a stenciled copy of a poem, and thereafter he showed me the 
little machine on which he could produce many more copies. He 
said it cost only one medjidie [a Turkish coin worth less than an 
American dollar]. 

"At this point my dream came back to me, a Hebrew children s 
paper with me as the editor. But here I was stuck. I did not have the 
great sum of one medjidie to buy the machine, and of course the 
whole thing had to be done in secret because I wished it to be a 
bombshell to the public. 

"Now I approached the oldest of my intimate acquaintances, 
Baruch Homah, who was known in our school for his beautiful 
handwriting, in Hebrew, French, and Arabic. He said that for the 
remuneration of one quarter of a medjidie he was willing to write 
up the whole paper in special ink for the stencil. But I still had no 

"Thereupon I went to see the writer Yavetz, whose eldest son 
agreed to write literary articles for the children. The rest of the edit 
ing I took upon myself. 

"The contents for the paper were soon ready for the first issue. 
The following were the contents: 

"a. To the Young Readers. 

"b. The Duty of Hebrew Children in Our Land. 

"c. Hebrew Only, or French and Turkish Also? 

"d. The Boundaries of Our Land Before Our Fathers Abraham 
and Moses. 

"e. Through the Land of Israel in Eight Days. 

"f. Children s Plays. 

"g. The Children s Press in France. 

"h. Jokes for Children and Charades. 

"Having everything ready, I went to our great friend, Nissim 
Behar, who was about to leave the country, and to Mr. Calmi, also 
a dear friend of the family, and told them my proposition. Mr. Nis 
sim Behar gave me immediately five French francs, and Mr. Calmi 
one half a medjidie. 

Tongue of the Prophets 

"Happy with my success, I ran to Baruch Homah, the boy with 
the beautiful script, and gave him the half medjidie, and then to the 
stationery shop and bought from Mr. Hagis the hectograph or dupli 
cating machine, to which he added five hundred sheets of paper. 

"A week later our paper appeared on the market. We sold fifty- 
seven copies and sent twenty to my uncle David in Rishon Le Zion, 
five to Rehovoth, and a few to Jaffa to Mr. Kragliakov, who refused 
to accept them. 

"The bombshell was enormous and the copies were handed from 
one to another. 

"When I told Mr. Hagis, the stationer, of our success he said : 

" *You will be a great man one day, son! 5 

"When I got home, however, full of the glory, my father met me 
with scorn, not because of the whole enterprise but because of the 
article, The Boundaries of Our Land Before Our Fathers Abraham 
and Moses. He reminded me that after the first scandal I promised 
that I would never mention a Hebrew army or anything connected 
with it again, and yet in this article I declared that we must fight for 
the ancient boundaries. 

"Well, there was a feeling of panic in our circles. Yavetz repri 
manded his son. Baruch Homah s father made his son stop his par 

"Luckily a sensational event took place in Jerusalem at this time 
which drowned the importance of my paper and the article. A Rus 
sian Jewish merchant by the name of Goldberg, seventy years old, 
and his wife, fifty-five, were shot dead by a Turkish policeman. 

"This aroused great excitement all around and caused complica 
tions in the Russian and Turkish diplomatic corps. 

"I took advantage of this turmoil and threw away the duplicating 
machine in the only pool in Jerusalem," 


Behind Bars 


Palestine was populated by only a few tens of thousands of Jews 
spread thinly across the land. Yet there was little unity among them. 

The relationship between Ben Yehuda and Jehiel Michael Pines 
was typical of the times. 

The lexicographer-editor was actually a great admirer of the man 
who represented the Jews who had emigrated from Great Britain. 
It was Pines who, when Ben Yehuda first came to Palestine, helped 
him form the Hebrew-Speaking Group. Yet it was Pines who had 
terrified Deborah, telling her that her first-born child would grow 
up to be an idiot because the father insisted it speak only Hebrew. 

It had been a strange relationship. Now Pines was involved in a 
new controversy. 

There was a Russian- Jewish group called Bney Mosheh, which 
sponsored some of the Hebrew schools in Palestine. Its leader was a 
Russian intellectual who had changed his name from Ginzberg to 
Ahad Haam, meaning "One of the People." Ahad Haam was a Ben 
Yehuda ally in that he proselytized for spoken Hebrew, but he was 
an enemy in that he was against the colonization of Palestine, con 
tending that Jews were inadequately equipped, intellectually and 


Tongue of the Prophets 

spiritually, for a pioneer life. He favored concentrating exclusively 
on improving the culture of Jews here and abroad. Pines and Ahad 
Haam had had a feud, and Pines had Ibeen read out of the group by 
its leader. The controversy came to a climax at a meeting in Jaffa 
which Ben Yehuda attended. 

Many vitriolic speeches were made, leading to an outburst by 
Pines himself in which he vowed that he would "fight to the last 
breath" against the Bney Mosheh. 

Ben Yehuda warned Pines that by his stand he was endangering 
all that both of them had been working for; that if he persisted he 
would destroy the entire Hebrew movement. 

Then let it be destroyed!" Pines shouted. 

This remark so angered Ben Yehuda that he retorted : 

"Then I shall destroy you first!" 

When Ben Yehuda reached home after the meeting he went im 
mediately to bed with bloody coughing spells. For days he was in a 
serious physical and emotional condition. He already deeply regret 
ted his outburst of temper against a man for whom he had such deep 
personal affection. Talking about it to Hemda, he said: 

"Maybe I was wrong, Bitti, yet this is a war we are fighting, and 
I suppose in a war a good soldier must fire at his adversary, even if 
that adversary be his own brother!" 

Hemda tried to nurse him back to health, but she had her own 
problems at this time. 

She and Ben Yehuda had been married for more than a year, and 
already the gossips of Jerusalem were raising their eyebrows and 
questioning the fact that the child bride had not yet conceived. 

She and Eliezer had talked about it months ago. She had subtly 
mentioned the fate of Deborah s three children and her husband s 
lung disease. She had told him of her horror at the infant and ma 
ternity mortality rate in Jerusalem and the prevalence of malaria, 
dysentery, and cc that terrible eye disease." 

Eliezer each time expressed his understanding of her hesitation. 
Yet she felt that he hoped she would bear him a child. 

So when Hemda finally felt new life stirring within her, she 
ftriekly confided the secret to her husband, who took her hand and 
sbfttysaid: , 


Behind Bars 

"Bitti, I am very glad!" 

But that same evening she extracted a promise from him. It must 
remain a secret. She would hide it from everyone, even from her 
mother and his, for as long as possible. This would be her small way 
of annoying the gossips of Jerusalem. 

So Heinda continued to preside at her Friday-evening soirees, to 
write for the Deer, to attend receptions, and to travel to the colonies, 
cloaking her secret by an ingenious use of the dressmaker s art. 

The second Mrs. Ben Yehuda was almost twenty-two years old 
when she bore her first child, which was the sixth child of Eliezer, 
who was thirty-five. 

Mrs. Yonas announced the birth in these words to the father: 

"A perfect little girl ! Five fingers on each small hand and five toes 
to each small foot. Bright open eyes and a sweet, tiny mouth. You 
should be happy and proud, Eliezer!" 

To perpetuate the memory of the first Mrs. Ben Yehuda, the child 
was named after her, and the following announcement appeared in 
the next issue of the Deer: 

"A daughter has been born to Eliezer and Hemda Ben Yehuda, 
and her name is Deborah." 

Congratulations poured in from Jaffa and the settlements, but 
with them came some loud complaints. The announcement in the 
paper said a name had already been given* What did the Ben Ye- 
hudas mean by such defiance of religious convention? Were they 
not good enough Jews to know that a name is given only after prayers 
have been said in the synagogue? 

Eliezer Ben Yehuda was so excited over the birth of Deborah II 
and so eager to remain in constant attendance upon mother and 
child that he persuaded Father Yonas to take over temporarily the 
management of the newspaper. 

Father Yonas, the rebellious freethinker, had undergone some 
thing of a conversion during the brief time he had been in Palestine. 
Gradually he became less and less the rebel he had been most of his 
life. He warned the Ben Yehudas that they were making a great mis 
take in not bringing up the children in the strict ways of religious 


Tongue of the Prophets 

The elderly distiller from Glubokiah took pride in the issue of the 
Deer which he had the privilege of editing. It was a special issue for 
Hanukkahy the eight-day candlelight festival which commemorates 
the victory of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Temple 
and is celebrated by putting one candle in the window the first 
night and adding one more each subsequent evening, through the 

Father Yonas was especially proud of the leading article he wrote 
entitled "Good Deeds Require a Purpose/ 5 which praised the cour 
age of the Maccabees and exhorted present-day Jews to follow in the 
footsteps of their illustrious ancestors. Like the Maccabees, the article 
said, "we must collect our forces and move forward." 

Palestinian editors in those days had to be very careful of what 
they wrote. Under Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the Ottoman officials 
were severe in their censorship. Jewish editors could comment on 
Jewish affairs and their own internal politics, but that was about all. 
They were not allowed to discuss, let alone criticize, the Ottoman 
Empire. If Ben Yehuda ever wished to publish even news items 
about world affairs, he had to be sure they were carefully phrased, 
with the import half concealed. 

Yet as Eliezer read over the special issue of the Deer he could see 
nothing wrong with anything his father-in-law had written. That 
was why what happened surprised and shocked him. 

On Friday afternoon, the fourth day after the birth of Deborah, 
and only a few hours after the Hanukkah issue of the Deer appeared, 
the walls of buildings along Jerusalem s Jaffa Street were suddenly 
plastered with placards signed by officers of the Central Administra 
tion of the Halukkah, by the Hacham Bashi of Jerusalem, and by 
the chief Ashkenazic rabbi. 

The placards denounced Ben Yehuda for using his paper to try 
to stir up armed revolt against the Turks, a scheme with which the 
signers hereby completely dissociated themselves. 

As proof of the accusation, the placards quoted the single phrase 
from the Yonas article, "Let us collect our forces and move for 
ward." This, of course, meant military forces, they said. 

All day Saturday, Jerusalem, which thrived on controversy, 
buzzed with excitement. Some said: 


Behind Bars 

"Obviously Ben Yehuda is proving too much of an annoyance 
for the old generation. They finally realize that he represents a new 
element which has entered the country and will not be put in its 
place and is changing the very foundations of Jewish life here. 
Therefore, they are out to get him !" 

The opposition, however, charged that Ben Yehuda had been 
"poking his nose into everything"; that every week his paper made 
some new attack on Jews; that he had tried to interfere in the elec 
tion of the Hacham Bashi; that he had printed expos& about the 
distribution of charitable contributions from abroad; that he had 
criticized the way Jewish religious institutions were run; that he had 
made public a list of rabbis and scholars who had been receiving 
free medical service from charitable funds. 

Jerusalem, they argued, must be freed of this man s evil influence 
by any means possible. The placards were right! 

Ben Yehuda himself dismissed the entire affair with one word, 
"Ridiculous !" and went on about his business. 

But on Sunday morning a policemen in Turkish uniform ap 
peared at the Ben Yehuda home and said Eliezer must accompany 

After getting his hat and coat, the editor stopped at his wife s 
bedroom and called to her: 

"I shall be back soon. I am just going to the censor s office!" 

After he was gone Hemda s instincts told her that something was 
wrong. It was the first time since their marriage he had ever left the 
house without kissing her good-by. 

Hours went by. Still Eliezer did not return. Late in the day 
Hemda became anxious and sent someone to bring Nissim Behar to 
her. The messenger returned saying Mr. Behar was with Mr. Ben 

Finally, early in the evening, Mr. Behar appeared. 

The process of interrogation had been long and protracted, and 
it had not yet been concluded. 

"However, do not worry. Your husband will surely be home in 
the morning." 

Hemda, finally realizing that Eliezer had been imprisoned, burst 
into tears. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

At midnight a man wearing long earlocks and a dark coat ar 
rived with what he said was a message from Mr. Ben Yehuda. He 
must deliver it to no one but the wife. 

Speaking in a whisper, he identified himself as Alter Kossover. 
He ran a store at the prison where the watchmen bought their gro 
ceries. Therefore, he had certain privileges. When he had heard that 
Ben Yehuda, whom he greatly respected, had been imprisoned, he 
persuaded a guard to let him visit the prisoner. When he asked Ben 
Yehuda if there was anything he could do for him, the editor had 

"Yes, go at once to my home and tell my wife it would be wise if 
she cleaned up the house because she might be having some unex 
pected guests soon." 

As the man talked Hemda studied his face and finally decided he 
was a trustworthy character. Yet she had a fear that this might be 
some sort of trap. What did Eliezer mean about cleaning up the 
house? And guests? He knew she was bedridden, and so ... 

But then she suddenly realized what he was trying to tell her, so 
she quickly replied to the messenger: 

"Say to Ben Yehuda that I understand and shall clean up the 
house at once !" 

As soon as the prison shopkeeper had gone she went to the study 
and collected all the documents and letters which might in any way 
compromise her husband with Turkish authorities. She made a 
package of these papers and had them delivered to a neighbor. 

The morning after the imprisonment another messenger arrived 
with a note from Ben Yehuda. It read: 

"I am in prison, but many friends are working to get me out. Do 
not worry. Take care of yourself." 

Hemda, however, had no faith in Ottoman bureaucracy. She con 
sidered the Turkish officials more unpredictable, more evil than even 
those of the czarist regime. In her wild imagination she decided 
that even now Eliezer might be on his way to an execution chamber 
in Constantinople. So she announced she was going to the prison in 
person and began dressing. 

David Yellin, the young Hebrew instructor, accompanied her. As 
they walked through the Old City businessmen stood in their door- 


Behind Bars 

ways to stare at her, and a crowd gathered. As they walked Hemda 
said to Yellin: 

"It is all so quiet. It is almost as if the angels of death were hover 
ing around us already !" 

When they arrived at the prison gates the watchman said they 
were too late; it was after sunset; the prison was closed; they could 
not possibly be admitted until midnight, when the director would 
arrive for his nightly inspection. 

"Have some pity on this poor woman!" Yellin pleaded, at the 
same time surreptitiously handing the guard some coins. 

The guard said, "Wait a minute!" and disappeared. When he 
returned Ben Yehuda was with him. The husband and wife talked 
from opposite sides of the iron gate. Hemda thought Eliezer looked 
very pale and terrified. They had exchanged only a few words when 
the watchman said he would now have to take Ben Yehuda away; 
this was strictly against the rules. 

Nissim Behar was waiting for Hemda when she returned home. 
Her first request was that he send a report at once to Baron Roth 
schild in Paris. Maybe he would help. 

By this time it had become clear that the arrest had been made 
after the Orthodox leaders had taken a translation of the Yonas arti 
cle to the Turkish officials, along with their own statement disavow 
ing responsibility for the "diabolical" suggestion advanced by the 
paper. The arrest itself had been ordered by Sultan Abdul Hamid 
II, who had previously issued the decrees forbidding Jewish immi 
gration into Palestine. 

Nissim Behar was the leader of the fight for Ben Yehuda s libera 
tion. He worked day and night without rest, hardly taking time for 
meals. He went to the Turkish governor of Jerusalem and tried to 
explain that the accusation was merely a vengeful act of old enemies. 
But the governor, obviously afraid of his own superiors in Constan 
tinople, replied: 

"You had better have nothing to do with this man or his affairs, 
else you might find yourself in a cell with him. 5 

"I am ready to go whenever you decide to send me!" Behar re 
plied, and stalked off. 

Tongue of the Prophets 

It was Nissim Behar who sent a long cable to Zadok Kahn, Chief 
Rabbi of France, imploring him to take the case up with Baron 
Rothschild. Behar knew that the baron s representative in Rishon 
Le Zion had already cabled Paris that the Rothschild standing in 
Palestine would suffer greatly if the baron intervened in the case. 

It was Nissim Behar who appealed to Ben Yehuda s friends 
throughout Palestine to contribute what they could to a fund. He ex 
plained that it would cost one thousand gold francs per day to bribe 
the prison officials, from the director down to the doorkeeper, in or 
der to obtain permission for Ben Yehuda s acquaintances to visit 
him, which was essential so they could hold consultations about 
what he was to say at his own trial. 

The money was raised quickly. Behar s own daughter, Henrietta, 
pawned the jewelry left to her by her mother and gave the proceeds 
to the fund. 

Hundreds of people came daily to the prison. A Jewish business 
man and his Arab partner opened a special cafe outside the gates so 
Ben Yehuda s visitors could get coffee and other refreshment. 

Telegrams by the hundreds came from all parts of Europe. 

Numerous progressive Arabs, among them many high officials, 
risked the ire of the Turkish government by openly lining up on Ben 
Yehuda s side. 

Many offers of help came from Christians, some of them diplo 
mats, some Catholic priests. One group of Freemasons sent a resolu 
tion of protest against the "crime" of the imprisonment. 

The most encouraging repercussion was that Ben Yehuda s arrest 
finally brought about some degree of solidarity among those Jews 
who were not actually in the camp of the opposition. 

Even Pines, with whom Ben Yehuda had so recently had such a 
violent feud, came to Hemda with an offer to do anything he could. 
He was in such a state of indignation over the arrest that at times he 
actually wept with anger. 

It was well known that Father Yonas was the author of the article 
which had started all the trouble. But he was still a Russian subject, 
whereas Ben Yehuda had become a Turkish citizen and also was 
listed on the masthead of the paper as the "responsible editor." Fur 
thermore, it was Ben Yehuda they were after. 


Behind Bars 

For eight days the emaciated, consumptive editor was kept behind 
bars. At first he was put in a cell already occupied by fifteen assas 
sins, a cell so small and crowded that he had to remain standing all 
night, his face thrust against the small opening at the top of the 
door in order to get air to breathe. 

The next day the prison doctor, influenced by a sizable bribe paid 
to him by Nissim Behar, decided that Ben Yehuda s tubercular con 
dition endangered the lives of the fifteen condemned murderers and 
ordered him put in a cell by himself. 

Hemda and Nissim Behar arranged to have a painter whitewash 
the walls of the new cell to rid them of insects. They also sent Ben 
Yehuda a straw rug, a bed, a mattress, a chair, and a worktable, as 
well as bed linen, a lamp, books, ink, paper, and a small oilstove on 
which to make tea. 

In her excitement Hemda mislaid the grating for the stove and as 
a substitute sent two large oriental keys to hold up the teapot. 

Hemda wanted to take Eliezer s two oldest children to the prison 
to see him, but Ben Zion was visiting the Yonases, who some time 
ago had taken quarters of their own, so Hemda was able to take only 

They arrived at the hour of the midday meal. As they entered the 
prison they saw the other inmates wash their feet and then join in a 
prayer for their own delivery, to which they added a postscript to 
the Almighty "for the man with the little beard." 

Hemda, describing the visit later, said: 

"The courtyard looked like a melting pot of East and West." 

On the way home Hemda and her stepdaughter came upon a 
scene which shocked them. In a narrow street they saw Ben Zion, 
then only eleven, surrounded by a crowd of older boys, most of them 
students in the Yeshiva, who danced around the child, pointing their 
fingers and shouting in Hebrew so he would surely understand (be 
cause he still spoke no other language) : 

"Your father is in prison. Your father is getting, what he deserves. 
Your father, the Heretic, is in jail. Your father is behind bars with 
murderers where he belongs." 

When Ben Zion saw his stepmother he ran to her with tears 
streaming down his face. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Later in the evening, after he had grown calm, he suddenly said 
to Hemda: 

"One thing Father will be happy about, anyway. Every word they 
shouted at me was in Hebrew. In his language !" 

On the third day the prison director called at Ben Yehuda s cell to 
pay an official visit. The two got along amazingly well, for the di 
rector was interested in astronomy, and Ben Yehuda could converse 
intelligently on the subject because he had studied it at the univer 
sity. They were in friendly astronomical conversation when the di 
rector suddenly looked down and saw the two oriental keys beside 
the teapot on Ben Yehuda s table. 

The warden examined the keys carefully. By an odd coincidence 
they were almost exactly the size and shape of the keys to the prison 
gate. That ended a happy friendship between two astronomy en 

The next morning Hemda was allowed to have breakfast with her 
husband in the prison courtyard, at the cost of another bribe. This 
time the other prisoners included her in their prayers. On each suc 
ceeding visit Hemda found Eliezer more calm. He even grew 

"It does not matter," he told his wife, "what they do to me. If 
they condemn me to stay in prison for a long time, at least I shall be 
able to work on my dictionary here." 



On Bail 


appeared at the cell of Eliezer Ben Yehuda two guards who an 
nounced that they had come to take him to the Palace of Justice to 
stand trial for treason. 

One of them carried a pair of handcuffs. 

Passively the young editor held out his hands so they could be 
fastened together with the links of steel. But at this moment some 
thing caused the guard to drop the handcuffs to the floor. The other 
guard, his superior, cursed and said: 

"Idiot! Surely you know that now we must take him without his 
hands bound together, for it is written that if the circles of iron drop 
to the ground they must not be used again." 

Thus Eliezer Ben Yehuda walked through the doors of the Palace 
of Justice for his own trial with his hands hanging free. 

Outside the building a great crowd was gathered. It was about 
equally divided between those who shouted the Hebrew equivalent 
of "Hurrah for Ben Yehuda!" and those who cried in a babel of 
Yiddish, Ladino, Russian, German, French, and other languages, 
"Condemn the heretic !" 

It was worthy of note that Ben Yehuda s supporters were mostly 

I9 1 

Tongue of the Prophets 

young people, while his opponents were nearly all of ,the older gen 

The prisoner s defense counsel was a Dominican monk. Father La- 
Grange, Ben Yehuda s close friend, who had always been eager to 
have Eliezer enter the monastery. 

The judges were a Sephardic Jew and two Arabs. 

The entire case was prejudiced just before the trial began by the 
arrival in Jerusalem from Constantinople of a cable signed by the re 
ligious leader of the entire Jewish community of Turkey proclaim 
ing against Ben Yehuda a ban or herem, as grave a punishment as 
excommunication of a Catholic by a decree from Rome. 

Following Jewish religious procedure, the ceremony of the herem 
was carried out in the principal synagogue of Jerusalem, with the 
blowing of the shof ar and the burning of black candles. Throughout 
the rest of Palestine the fact was widely advertised that henceforth 
and forever this man who had defied the ecclesiastical authorities 
was an unclean and evil person, beyond the realm of salvation. 

According to custom, no one but members of the immediate 
family could have anything to do with a person placed under such a 
ban. It therefore amounted to a virtual business and professional 
boycott. Among Orthodox Jews it was the most feared of all punish 

It later developed that the excommunication had been arranged 
by the rabbis of Jerusalem, who had argued with their spiritual 
leader that if he failed to take such action it would be a virtual an 
nouncement to the world that he and they favored the proposed 
overthrow by force of the Ottoman Empire. 

So when the case of the Ottoman Empire vs. Eliezer Ben Yehuda 
came to trial it was already an established fact that his own people, 
the Jews, had officially, through proper ecclesiastical channels, is 
sued their own condemnation of him. 

Father LaGrange presented to the court a translation into Arabic 
of the disputed editorial, arguing that it contained nothing at all re 

The prosecutor retorted: 

iC The Jewish rabbis are better able to judge than you! 5 * 

The one pregnant phrase, "Let us collect our forces and move 


On Bail 

forward," contained an old Hebrew expression, laassot hayil, which 
figuratively means "to progress, to go ahead, 33 but literally can be 
translated, "to form an army." 

Mr, Yonas had used it in its purely metaphorical sense, but that 
was not easy to prove in a court of law. 

The judges were in a difficult predicament. The Jew was afraid to 
compromise himself and therefore held out for a verdict of guilty. 

The two Arabs had been bribed by both sides and were therefore 
in a quandary. 

Finally the bench handed down its verdict. It took a "happy" 
middle course. The opinion was expressed that Eliezer Ben Yehuda 
was not a dangerous rebel. On the other hand, said the opinion, it 
was clear that he was a troublemaker who should be punished. 
Therefore, he was hereby sentenced to one year in prison. 

The newspaper, the verdict said, was certainly the cause of all the 
trouble, and so it was hereby suspended indefinitely. 

The judges then ruled that Ben Yehuda could take an appeal to 
a higher court if he wished, meanwhile going free on bail, if such 
bail were provided on the spot. Otherwise he would go back to 
prison and lose his chance for temporary freedom, even if a satisfac 
tory bond were to be forthcoming later. 

The court set bail at three hundred Turkish pounds (about fifteen 
hundred dollars) . 

Nissim Behar jumped up and offered to sign the required bond, 
but his offer was rejected because he was not a property owner. 

After an audible gasp of disappointment from Ben Yehuda s 
friends the guards started to take the prisoner back to his cell. 

At this dramatic moment a Sephardic Jew, Shlomoh Amiel, who 
had emigrated from Morocco years ago and now was a wealthy Pal 
estinian landowner, stepped forward and agreed to put his signature 
to a bond, which was accepted. 

Flanked by his two most loyal friends, Nissim Behar and David 
Yellin, Ben Yehuda walked from the building a temporarily free 

The crowd, assuming that he had been found innocent, broke 
into an uproar, the cheers interspersed with almost equally vehe 
ment shouts of disapproval. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Jerusalem that winter was plagued by heavy rains, fierce storms, 
great winds, and bitter cold weather. 

It was a gloomy winter for everyone, most of all for the newspaper 
editor without a newspaper. 

Eliezer Ben Yehuda, by the terms of the bond under which he had 
been liberated, was not allowed to leave the country or to move 
about freely. Even when he walked in the darkness of Jerusalem s 
narrow, twisting streets he had the feeling that he was being watched 
and followed. Most of the time he was a prisoner within his own 
four walls, although he did occasionally spend long hours in Nissim 
Behar s home, planning the appeal. 

In these months both sides were preparing for the new trial, 
which was to take place in the Syrian city of Beirut. 

The prosecution sought to postpone the rehearing of the case to as 
late a date as possible, for as long as the lower court s sentence hung 
over the editor s head he was under a stigma and could be con 
trolled. Also, the case could remain a continuing source of revenue 
to officials who were not above subtly suggesting the payment of 
more bribes when they were not voluntarily forthcoming. 

Ben Yehuda s advisers naturally wished to have the trial as soon 
as possible, because the editor was without a voice as long as his pa 
per was banned. 

Nissim Behar wrote to prominent Jews the world over for their 
moral and financial assistance. 

The opposition followed his example, so a battle of letters ensued. 

Both sides knew that the trump card in this game of strategy was 
held by Baron Rothschild; that whichever side he supported would 
have victory within its grasp. So the French millionaire was deluged 
with cables and letters. 

For a long time there was complete silence from Paris, Then fi 
nally the Orthodox rabbis received one of the most succinct cables 
on record. It read merely: 


It took no great astuteness to realize that behind this admonition 
to "look to your prayers" was the implication that they were outside 


On Bail 

their proper sphere when they interfered in political and judicial 

It was undoubtedly this cable which prompted them to try to back 
out of the case in as face-saving a manner as possible to avoid the 
wrath of their benefactor. 

Accordingly a message was sent to Ben Yehuda that the Hacham 
Bashi wished to see him. 

With understandable pride the editor refused to present himself. 

One day Nissim Behar invited Hemda and Eliezer to his home for 
tea. When they arrived they found a large assemblage of guests, and 
from the expressions on the faces realized that this was no ordinary 
social affair. 

After their host had greeted them he waved his hand toward a 
black curtain which hung over a doorway, and through the curtain 
came the splendid figure of the Hacham Bashi, Rabbi Jacob Saul 
Elyashar, with his hands outstretched. 

As he approached Ben Yehuda he said in Hebrew: 

<c Ahenu atah [You are our brother] !" 

Quickly Ben Yehuda was surrounded by excited well-wishers who 
knew that these are the words by which a herem or excommunica 
tion is formally and officially lifted. 

Turning to his host, Ben Yehuda indignantly said: 

"Why did you do this without my consent?" 

Nissim Behar smiled. 

"My friend, it is done!" 

Ben Yehuda returned to his home that day full of annoyance and 
refused even to discuss what had happened. 

It was Hemda who passed the news on to other members of the 
family that Eliezer was no longer technically an infidel. 

The happiest of all was Feygaleh Perlman, the most Orthodox 
member of the household. It had grieved her that her own son, in 
stead of becoming a conventional rabbi as she had always dreamed 
he would, had ended up being declared a heretic. 

Ben Zion also understood what it all meant. In a burst of feeling 
he said: 

"Now they will no longer be able to dance around me, and call 
me names, and shout that my father is a bad man!" 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Little Yemeemah thought it meant that her father would never 
again be sent to a horrible place like the prison in which she had 
visited him, so she dapped her hands and joined in the celebration. 

Later Nissim Behar arrived and convinced Ben Yehuda that he 
had not "lost face" ; that he had actually won an important victory; 
that the lifting of the excommunication would help raise his stature 
throughout Palestine, would bring new unity in the Jewish com 
munity, and, most important of all, would pave the way for an ac 
quittal at Beirut. 

"Even if Baron Rothschild uses his influence on the judges," Be 
har explained, "and of course I still hope that he will, it is neces 
sary that the high court have some excuse for an acquittal. Now the 
excuse has been provided, for by lifting the ban the rabbis have offi 
cially retracted their charge and have as much as admitted that they 
were wrong." 

In the weeks which followed, Ben Yehuda devoted all his time to 
his dictionary, working eighteen or nineteen hours a day in his study, 
most of the time standing, for he preferred to work at a high desk 
such as bookkeepers use. He contended that he could think better 
standing up. 

Because the winter of that year was so frigid and because the Ben 
Yehudas had no money for fuel, it was necessary for Eliezer to work 
bundled up in as many garments as he could drape on his frail body. 

One day Nissim Behar arrived wearing a broad grin which her 
alded the good news he bore. 

"The baron," he announced, "has finally thrown his full support 
to our side !" 

Then he explained that a message had just been received by the 
Rothschild representative: 


That was a nice French idiom, coute que coute: "regardless of 

With the message had come a check for ten thousand francs. 

The defense spent three thousand francs hiring a good lawyer. 
Five thousand more went to bribing the prosecutor. The remainder 


On Bail 

was used for miscellaneous expenses, which of course included some 
minor bribes. 

The appeal was heard eight months after the original trial. 

Nissim Behar was unable to leave his school and Hemda was un 
able to leave her infant child, so Ben Yehuda went to Beirut alone. 

Friend and wife waited impatiently for news of the verdict. Fi 
nally it came in a cable from Eliezer which contained just one He 
brew word : 


When the exonerated editor returned home, however, he an 
nounced a detail of the decision which kept the family happiness 
from being complete. 

The court had ruled that the ban on the Deer must remain in ef 
fect for a full year in all, which meant another four months of voice- 
lessness for Eliezer Ben Yehuda. 

The partial victory was hailed in the press around the world as 
a triumph over bigotry and persecution. 


Words Everywhere 


additional four months in which he could work without interruption 
on his "words/ 5 it was apparent to everyone that he was as unhappy 
without his paper as a professional orator or singer without the use 
of voice. 

As the twelve months drew to a close he began counting the days. 
Finally, on the anniversary of the original trial, he presented himself 
at the office of the governor of Jerusalem and applied for the return 
of the Deer s license. 

The stubborn old governor said he did not feel bound by the order 
of the court in Beirut. The paper would remain under the ban for a 
full twelve months more. If by then nothing else had happened, per 
mission to republish might be forthcoming. 

Ben Yehuda was disconsolate. He poured out his bitterness to 
Hemda. She tried to comfort him, saying: 

"Eliezer, my dear, I am sure this is Providence s way of forcing 
you to concentrate on the really important task. You were happy for 
months working on your dictionary. Now you can continue to con 
centrate on it. You know that is really your lifework!" 

So Ben Yehuda went back to his study and his words. For years he 


Words Everywhere 

had been covering small pieces of paper with notations in his fine, 
aesthetic handwriting. The room was full of them. They overflowed 
from his desk and the tables onto the floor. 

Whoever cleaned the room had specific instructions that no scrap 
of paper, however small and unimportant-looking, was ever to be 
thrown away or even touched. 

Hemda knew that on the back of an envelope there might be 
notes for a word which someday would be used by millions of Jews 
to designate an object or idea for which no Hebrew word had previ 
ously existed. Or on such a scrap of paper there might be a few 
words of etymology which Ben Yehuda had spent weeks searching 
for in some distant library, 

Hemda never forgot the day her husband "lost a word." He came 
to her with the expression of a child whose favorite little sailboat has 
just been carried out of sight by a malicious wind. 

"Bitti," he said in a grieved voice, holding up a piece of paper not 
much larger than a postage stamp, "have you seen one of my notes 
about this size? I have hunted for hours and hours and cannot find 

Hemda shook her head. Finally she said: 

"Eliezer, what was on the piece of paper?" 

"It was a word, Hemda. A new Hebrew word. A very important 
word which we need very much. I do not know what I shall do if I 
fail to find it ! It would take months and months of work, searching 
through books here and abroad, to trace that word again. It was a 
word which disappeared from usage long ago. I was just about to 

bring it back to life again when Where do you suppose that 

piece of paper went to, Hemda?" 

Eventually the "lost word" was found in the cuff of Eliezer^s 
trouser leg, but Hemda knew that this would happen over and over 
again until the dictionary was finally completed. 

The Ben Yehuda family lived on words those days, and little else 
but words, for the financial situation was acute again. They had 
dark bread and words for breakfast. They had bread and words and 
olive oil for the midday meal. They had bread and words and maybe 
a little something else for the meal at the end of the day. 

About this time the Ben Yehudas were paid a visit by an English 


Tongue of the Prophets 

scholar. Professor Solomon Schechter, who later was to become 
president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He ex 
pressed great admiration for the work Ben Yehuda was doing and 
before he left made a suggestion which, although childishly simple, 
revolutionized the lexicographer s work. He advised Ben Yehuda to 
inaugurate a filing system; to put his notes on small cards and ar 
range them systematically. 

This suggestion enabled Ben Yehuda to classify his material and 
make much speedier progress in his work. 

Two young theological students, Rafalowitch and Hirschenson, 
were hired at ten francs apiece per month to work half of each day 
copying Ben Yehuda s notes in alphabetical order. 

Few people in Jerusalem understood Ben Yehuda. Very few un 
derstood what he was doing eighteen or nineteen hours a day poring 
over so many books. But everyone knew about the books. They knew 
that this thin, consumptive man consumed books voraciously. So 
they came in a constant stream to the Ben Yehuda home laden with 

Some came to sell their books. Others wanted to rent them at a 
small weekly fee. The more generous brought them as free-will offer 
ings and presented them as gifts. 

There was hardly a book they brought, no matter in what lan 
guage, that Ben Yehuda did not at least skim through. He had an 
elaborate system of marking passages with pencils of various colors. 
Sometimes, however, if he happened to have a pen in his hand, in 
his absent-mindedness he would make marginal notes in ink, to the 
eventual distress of the owner of the volume. 

The mountains of books that were stacked everywhere in the Ben 
Yehuda home bothered Hemda, who was instinctively a neat house 

The books which the people of Jerusalem brought were often 
anything but clean. Often worms crawled out from the bundles, or 
cockroaches. Sometimes moths flew out. Once she even saw a small 
mouse chew its way out of a package of books someone had left in 
the entrance hall. 

It was the mouse which prompted Hemda to say at dinner one 
night, trying to frighten her husband into action: 


Wards Everywhere 

"Eliezer, I am afraid these bugs and animals will breed and mul 
tiply in your study and that eventually they will eat up all your 
lovely Hebrew words! 35 

To which the husband, in an oratorical voice, replied: 
"A living Hebrew word, Bitti, is stronger than any bug or insect 
or animal ! It will fight for its life and will survive afl its enemies F 

In these days there arrived in Jerusalem from Paris a representa 
tive of Baron Rothschild, who called on the Ben Yehudas and after 
the usual formalities said he had something interesting to show them. 
Out of his suitcase he produced an album of fine leather containing 
ten attractive pictures. 

"I have the intention," he announced, "of paying a visit to the 
Turkish governor of your city and making him a gift of this volume 
with the compliments of the baron." 

"I am sure he will appreciate it," Ben Yehuda said with only a 
mild show of interest. 

But the visitor went on, with his eyes sparkling: 

"We have a hope that he will be so pleased with the gift that he 
will make certain concessions to us." 

The visitor now had the expression of a small boy in possession of 
a secret no one else knows and who can hardly wait to reveal it to 
someone. Turning to Hemda, he said : 

"Do you not notice that each picture is fastened in the book quite 
loosely and that there is something peeking out from underneath 
each one?" 

Hemda had not noticed. But now she looked more carefully and 
found that under each picture there was a one-thousand-franc- 
bank note, with a corner of each just barely showing. 

"I think," said the baron s representative, "that our friend, the 
old pasha, will like the album very much. Then we shall see what 
concessiofis the old rascal will give us." 

The Ben Yehudas sent the man off with their good wishes and 
then waited impatiently for him to return with a report. 

He was gone for hours. When he came back he had a self -satisfied 
smile on Ids face. 

Eliezer had difficulty remaining patient. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"Tell us quickly what concessions if any you obtained !" 

"He agreed that the ban will be lifted on the right of Jews to con 
struct new houses." 

Eliezer jumped to his feet. 

"That is a great victory ! That will end one of the worst handicaps 
our people have had in the colonization of the land ! You are to be 
greatly " 

Honda, however, interrupted: 

"Did you by any good fortune obtain any other concession?" 

The man from Paris smiled. 

"Yes. It was a very fruitful meeting. The old pasha also agreed to 
mitigate the ban against the immigration of Jews into Palestine. 
From now on we shall not have to smuggle our people into the coun 
try disguised as sacks of potatoes I" 

"That is the way my own mother had to enter Palestine," Ben 
Yehuda said wistfully. 

"Yes/ 5 said Hemda, "but I had hoped that maybe . . ." 

The man from Paris seemed to be enjoying the little game he was 
playing. Now he stood up in order to make his next announcement 
as impressive as possible, 

"Your hopes, Mrs. Ben Yehuda, were well founded. The pasha 
also gave his permission for a weekly newspaper known as the Deer 
to be published again, starting at once !" 

In the months that followed, Ben Yehuda temporarily abandoned 
work on his dictionary and devoted all his energy to reviving his 
"favorite child" which had, for nearly a year and a half, been sleep 
ing. Soon its voice was stronger than ever and began to be heard not 
only in Palestine but even beyond the borders of the country. 

The interest shown in the revival of the Deer indicated how much 
it had been missed. Young aspiring journalists in the settlements be 
gan voluntarily to send in news reports. 

It was Hemda who was responsible for a journalistic fraud which 
greatly enlivened the paper. She had resumed her column, "Letter 
from Jerusalem." Now she suggested: 

"Why should I not also write letters from Vienna, Paris, Moscow, 


Words Everywhere 

"But, Bitti, where would you get your material? We cannot afford 
to send you to all those cities!" 

"If I read all that the papers from those places say about art, 
books, politics, music, and everything else, I could get all the infor 
mation I need, then if some of our friends could send us occasional 
short cables they could be worked into my columns and make them 
appear as if they had all just been cabled to us." 

Eliezer at first thought this would be a violation of journalistic 
ethics, but Hemda had her way and soon columns were appearing 
each week from foreign capitals bearing the signatures of various 
mythical correspondents. 

One week Hemda wrote a "Letter from Safed," signing it with 
the pseudonym Hida. A few days after it appeared Hemda, at a lit 
erary gathering in Jerusalem, met a personable young man who 
obviously, from his conversation, failed to realize her identity. He 
was making, however, a great effort to impress this attractive young 
\\roman with his own literary accomplishments. 

Oh yes, he was a writer, he said. A professional writer. A great 
Seal of his work had been published. Surely die knew the paper 
called the Deer! He was a regular correspondent. In fact, he had 
had a column in the Deer this past week entitled "Letter from 
Safed." She had read it? What did she think of his literary style? 

That night, telling Eliezer about it, Hemda said: 

"I wonder how many people in Paris, Vienna, Moscow, and Ber 
lin are taking credit for what I write?" 

Ben Yehuda s encouragement of young Jewish writers in various 
parts of Europe prompted them to send a flood of contributions to 
the revived Deer. Many men who later were to become celebrated 
in the field of Jewish literature got their start through the little 
Jerusalem weekly. 

Nahum Slousch wrote many travel stories for the Deer. His Voy 
age to Lithuania was printed in weekly installments. 

Saul Tshernikowski, who later became known as the "poet of 
paganism" and "the poet laureate of the Jews," contributed many 
poems which introduced a Hellenic spirit to a growing Hebrew 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Micah Berdyczewski wrote fiction and philosophical pieces for the 

Joseph Klausner contributed articles on a variety of subjects. 

Each time an envelope came from any of these men there was 
excitement in the office of the Deer, for the Ben Yehudas realized 
there here, without a doubt, was another piece of real literature. 

One day an especially fat envelope came from Berdyczewski. It 
contained a philosophical article entitled "The Cane." As Ben 
Yehuda read it his forehead was as wrinkled as it often was when 
he was struggling with an especially troublesome philological prob 

Finally he tossed the article onto Hemda s desk, saying: 

"Read this, Bitti, and see what you think of it. I am afraid I do 
not understand exactly what he means. But I am sure there is some 
thing in it." 

After Hemda had studied it she reported : 

"I fail to understand its meaning either, but it is beautifully writ 
ten, so let s publish it. * 

The day the next issue of the Deer came from the press Ben 
Yehuda and his wife went off on their first trip to the settlements 
since the Deer had reappeared. They wanted to get the reactions of 
their public. They were certain they would be showered with con 
gratulations, for the Deer was becoming strong and robust and ad 

They went from colony to colony, thanking their friends for their 
support during the black hours. 

At Rishon Le Zion they were greeted by an elderly subscriber who 
pointed a finger at Ben Yehuda and shouted: 

<c Those letters from Paris and London and other places you 
can t fool me ! You write them yourself ! J * 

Someone else expostulated: 

"That man Nahun Slousch bores us with his interminable voyages 
and travel tales I" 

Then there were the tirades against Tshernikowski by those who 
said he wrote only of "love and stolen kisses, sweet promises and 
broken hearts." In the same breath they denounced the love stories 
wMch Hemda occasionally wrote. Love, the critics said, should be 


Wards Everywhere 

confined to the bedroom and not written about; especially not in the 
holy language or in a publication that the young might read. 

But it was the article called "The Cane" which came in for the 
most violent denunciations. 

Judah Grazovski, one of Ben Yehuda s best friends in Jaffa, called 
it "nonsense." 

David Idelovitch, the Hebrew teacher, could hardly wait to say : 

"Ben Yehuda, why do you fill your paper with such straw and 
fodder? Do you think we are all donkeys and cattle unable to dis 
tinguish between such stuff and real literature? What does the writer 
of this article mean? I defy you to explain it!" 

Hemda looked quickly at her husband. She could tell he was 
about to admit it had been incomprehensible to him, too, so she 
took a quick step forward and said rather sarcastically: 

"It s just that you re too lazy to figure it out ! Read it three or four 
times more and eventually you will comprehend it." 

The only new writer who was generally approved was Klausner. 
Hemda said it was because "he manages all the time to say nothing 
but to say it beautifully, without making anyone think." 

One subscriber said, "Why waste your energy on a little news 
paper? You ought to be working full time on your dictionary." 

"The dictionary depends on you people," Ben Yehuda replied. 
"You can have it whenever you wish. I am ready to commence the 
printing just as soon as funds are forthcoming. If you wish a Hebrew 
dictionary so badly, then go out and raise the money!" 

As a result of that speech those within hearing promptly sub 
scribed enough for the publication of a volume of forty pages. At 
that time Ben Yehuda himself thought one thousand pages would be 
sufficient for the kind of dictionary he had in mind, little realizing 
himself to how many volumes of how many thousands of pages the 
first real Hebrew dictionary in history would eventually run. 


Burned Career 


which the Ottoman Empire had so often thrown along the path, a 
real national Jewish life had begun to develop in Palestine, partly 
as a result of the labors of Eliezer Ben Yehuda and his group of 
idealistic followers. 

By this time Jaffa, so recently an almost Arab city, had become at 
least half Jewish, 

. The settlements were multiplying, and dividing, and increasing 
their holdings as well as their population. 

Even the ancient city of Safed, so far from Jerusalem, was feel 
ing the effects of the renaissance because of the colonies in that 

Hebrew at last was being used as a living language by those who 
dared defy the reactionaries, 

Nissim Behar, weary of the continuous difficulties he was having 
with assistants sent to him from Paris, resigned his principalship of 
the Alliance school about this time and started on a tour of the 
world. When he left, the Ben Yehudas felt they had lost their best 
and most loyal ally. His successor continued French as the curricu 
lum language. 


Burned Career 

An institution for the education of Jewish girls, called the Evelina 
de Rothschild School, used English as its "official" language. 

The Lamel School, supported by the Jews of Germany, conducted 
all its classes in the Teutonic language, as did a German orphanage 
which finally had a sizable enrollment. 

Ben Yehuda wrote frequent articles demanding to know how 
long this absurd situation was going to be allowed to continue. He 
kept insisting that the "first" language in every school be Hebrew, 
arguing that this would create harmony and that if eventually the 
children spoke the language in their homes, their parents would also 
learn it. 

But Hebrew was being taught as a "foreign language" in most of 
the schools by now, and many of Ben Yehuda s allies among the 
teachers encouraged their pupils to speak Hebrew on their play 
grounds, in the streets, and after they reached home. Teachers and 
principals who co-operated in this way received special recognition 
in the columns of the Deer. 

Not many months after the ban on the Deer had been lifted Ben 
Yehuda one day announced to Hemda: 

"Look, Bitti! Here is the first copy to come from the press of the 
first real little Hebrew dictionary in two thousand years !" 

Almost as proudly as he had showed off his first child years ago, 
he displayed to his wife a forty-page booklet which he had published 
with tie small fund they had raised on their last trip to the colonies. 
It was badly printed on cheap paper with a thin yellow cover, yet it 
was a dictionary, put out in defiance of the Turkish decree against 
the publishing of books by Jews. 

Later that day he said: 

"One thing I realized as I prepared the copy for this little book. 
If there is ever going to be a real dictionary I must get to work on 
it in earnest. Years and years of work remain to be done, and I do 
not see how " 

"I have a solution, Eliezer. You must put everything else aside 
and " 

"But the newspaper, Bitti " 

"I shall take over the paper. From time to time you can give me 


Tongue of the Prophets 

a political article, and of course you must write your column about 
words. But leave the rest to me." 

So it was that Hemda, although pregnant with her second child, 
became in fact if not in title the editor of the Deer. The day she as 
sumed charge she took her chemistry notebooks from a trunk and 
burned them. 

One day a group of Jewish women came to Hemda and asked 
for her help on a project of theirs. They had discovered that the 
people were hungry for music, so they had engaged a gifted young 
violinist from Rehovoth to come to Jerusalem and give a concert. 
The Alliance school would permit the use of its auditorium. The 
women themselves would sell tickets from door to door. But they 
needed some publicity. And they also needed a word. They wanted 
a Hebrew word for "concert" ! 

Hemda took up the philological matter with Eliezer. 

"Yes, Bitti, tliere is a word, tizmoret. I have just recently made 
some notes about it. A very pleasant little word it is !" 

Hemda reported to the concert committee that as his contribution 
to the project her husband presented them with tizmoret, but they 
should keep it as a surprise until the last moment. 

Eliezer, however, not being informed that it was to be a surprise, 
launched the word on the public in his next word-column in the 
Deer, immediately precipitating a crisis in Palestinian musical cir 
cles, for at this same time, in Rishon Le Zion, a small orchestra was 
also planning a concert and also needed a word for it. Reading in 
the Deer about tizmoret, they put out announcements that a tizmoret 
would be given on such-and-such a date. 

The women of Jerusalem were disconsolate. Not only was there 
no longer any surprise, but "their word" had been expropriated by a 
rival music group ! 

Hemda went again to her husband. 

"Eliezer, you must create another word for concert, for us!" 

So Ben Yehuda locked himself in his study and after a long time 
came out with a solution, a second word for concert; not a new 
creation, but a Hebrew word he had found in ancient literature 
wldeh had disappeared from usage long ago: the word mangina. 


Burned Career 

That is how it happened that one evening a tizmoret was given 
by an orchestra in Rishon Le Zion and some nights later a mangina 
was given in Jerusalem* 

Today, as a result of that friendly feud between two rival musical 
organizations more than half a century ago, anyone speaking mod 
ern idiomatic Hebrew has a choice of two words when he wishes to 
speak about a "concert." 

Deborah Beu Yehuda was two yeans old when her mother gave 
birth to a second child, Ehud, who looked so much like the father 
that the mother called him "The Little Prince." 

It was not Hemda s fault that Ehud died when he was one year 
old. Nor was it due to contracting the father s chronic disease. Ehud 
died of pneumonia. 

It was Hemda s first intimate experience with death, and it left a 
cruel mark on her. She never forgot the picture of her baby lying 
motionless, nor how Eliezer had to drag her from the death cham 
ber, nor how he had said: 

"You must not sorrow any more, Bitti. It is all over." 

Nor did she ever forget how, after Eliezer had left her alone^ she 
had sneaked back to have a last look at her dead child and had found 
her husband on his knees by the bed, crying over the still, small form. 

The illness which overtook Hemda after this had no connection 
with Ehud s death. It was a result of the Palestinian climate. Ma 
laria and rheumatism combined to keep her frequently in bed. 
When she could move about die took numerous trips to Jaffa, partly 
for a change in atmosphere but principally so as not to inflict her 
busy husband with worries about her ailments. 

Then tragedy struck again. 

Father Yonas had shared with Eliezer and Hemda their joys and 
their tribulations. He had been delighted that his protege had won 
so many battles against the forces of ignorance arid intolerance. 

But about this time he announced that he himself could no longer 
endure the tips and downs of this unpredictable sort of life. He was 
growing old, Palestine was a place for youthful souls. 

"Would you and Eliezer be distressed," he asked Hemda one day, 
"if I left the country for a few years? I think I should like to stay in 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Paris for a time. I could send you articles for the paper from there. 
When the children are ready for their advanced education you could 
send them to me one at a time." 

Eliezer and Hemda were sympathetic. They even agreed that dur 
ing his absence, however long it might be, they would care for his 
wife and two small children. 

The entire family went to the railway station to see him off for 
Jaffa, where he was to catch a boat to Marseille. As they left for the 
depot the father took his daughter aside and said: 

"Pola, my child, we have been close friends all our lives; closer 
than most fathers and daughters. But I warn you that if I see a 
single tear when we say good-by I shall be forced to change all my 

So Hemda smiled bravely and waved a small handkerchief until 
the train disappeared in the Judean hills. 

Then fate played a strange trick. 

The tram was late reaching Jaffa and it missed connections with 
the boat. 

Father Yonas discovered that he could not get another steamer 
for two more weeks. While he was waiting in Jaffa he contracted a 
contagious disease and went to Rishon Le Zion for treatment. 

Hemda understood why he picked Rishon Le Zion. It was his 
favorite spot in Palestine because it was such a progressive settle 
ment and he had so many friends there. 

After a few days Eliezer received a message from Rishon Le Zion 
that he and Hemda and Mrs. Yonas had better come quickly. 

Before the next steamer sailed for Marseille death claimed 
Shlomoh Naftaly Hirtz Yonas, the distiller of Glubokiah. 

In trying to comfort Hemda, Eliezer said to her : 

"Bitti, we can at least be happy that it happened at Rishon Le 
Zion. There is an old Hebrew proverb that says, C A man s feet always 
take him to the place where he really wants to die. 5 " 

Jews from all over Palestine trekked their way several days later 
to Rishon Le Zion to pay their respects to the man who years ago 
had found a small boy shivering one morning in a synagogue and 
had taken him home, and thus had started him on a career which 
already had affected the lives of so majiy thousands of Jews. 


Burned Career 

Nothing could have delighted Hemda more that autumn than 
Ben Yehuda s suggestion that they take a long trip through the Jew 
ish settlements of Galilee. 

She knew Eliezer was concerned about taking her mind off all 
that had happened, but he assured her he wanted to see whether 
Hebrew had taken firm root in Galilee. 

Their first stop was Petach Tikvah, which charmed Hemda be 
cause of its lushness, owing to constant irrigation from great artesian 

Next they went to Hedera. 

"I am sorry we must stop here/ 9 Eliezer said, <c but I think you 
ought to see it. It is known as the Village of Death* now. It had a 
siege of yellow fever recently which killed every one of the original 
settlers. How many inhabitants we shall find left I have no idea!" 

As they rode into Hedera they found the once busy village as de 
serted as a graveyard. There were no women s voices, no men at 
work in the fields, no children playing. Only two inhabitants were 
left. Both were ill in bed. 

"I can feel death stalking up and down these streets/ Hemda 

One of the invalids was a young man, sole survivor of a family of 
seven. The other was an agronomist who, when he arrived to make 
a survey, had been warned to leave at once if he wanted to leave at 
all. He had refused. Now he was on his deathbed. Over and over 
again to Ben Yehuda he said : 

"This place must somehow be brought back to life!" 

Eliezer explained to Hemda that the trouble resulted from 
marshes on the edge of the village. 

"Petach Tikvah had marshes and malaria, too, yet today it is 
one of our healthiest and most prosperous places. Hedera will be like 
that, too, someday. The baron plans to plant a forest here. The 
drainage of the swamps had already begun when the epidemic came. 
I am sure we will live long enough to see Hedera another Petach 
Tikvah !" 

Hemda looked at the deserted streets and raised her eyebrows in 
doubt. Years later, however, she was to pay a return visit and see 
her husband s prediction come true, for Hedera was destined to be- 


Tongue of the Prophets 

come one of the largest Jewish, settlements, free of disease, wealthy in 
its production of milk, butter, cereals, fruit, cattle. 

The road now led up steep mountains to Zichron Yaakov, which 
called itself the "Little Paris of Palestine. 35 Although only two hours 
from Hedera, the climate here was cool and healthy. This was a 
place settled principally by Rumanians, tall, broad-shouldered, jolly 
people, prosperous and self-satisfied. 

"Why, Eliezer, the Little Paris ?" Hemda asked as she stared at 
unattractive lime-covered houses and mud-rutted streets down which 
humans and animals alike had to walk because there were no side 

Her husband smiled. 

"Maybe because of its wonderful park. Or because they are so 
prosperous. There is a legend that no Zichron Yaakov farmer knows 
where his own fields and vineyards are because they are all worked 
by Arab employees. Or perhaps it is their European-looking syna 
gogue and the miniature of a Paris department store. Or, more 
likely, because everyone here speaks such perfect French and the 
children are required to do their studies in the language of Paris in 
schools established by Baron Rothschild." 

There were old people in Zichron Yaakov who complained bit 
terly about the loss of their children. They had skimped and saved to 
send their youth to France, and their youth, in most cases, had not 
returned, leaving the parents with fields they themselves were now 
too old to work and with no new generation to take their places in 
the settlement. 

After they had left Zichron Yaakov, Eliezer said: 

"I predicted this years ago, Bitti, when your sister and I first came 
to this place. I preached and wrote against what the baron was do 
ing with his importation of French culture and insistence on the 
French language. I had bitter fights over it. They accused me, with 
my Hebrew, of trying to turn their children into ignoramuses and 
illiterates. They fought every additional quarter hour of Hebrew I 
tried to get into the school curriculum. When they bought books, 
they wanted French ones and not Hebrew. 

<f l called it the suicide of the youaager generation and I pleaded 
with our people to put a stop to it. I begged them to educate their 


Burned Career 

children in our own language, teach them our own culture, en 
courage them to take pride in our own literature. 

"I wrote that they were making cripples out of their children by 
letting them go abroad and putting them back voluntarily under the 
yoke of prejudice and persecution. 

"Hemda, you know how much I admire things intellectual. But 
French culture could be the death of Israel, if what has happened 
in Zichron Yaakov were to happen everywhere. 

"Did you see some of the young men who had returned from 
abroad? They are often referred to as the sons of the rich baron/ 
They behave just like typical rich men s sons. They consider them 
selves too good for hard labor, yet have not acquired the knowledge 
to do anything else. They can merely talk French in the Paris man 
ner. 3 * 

Despite the obvious truth of all this, the Ben Yehudas did meet in 
Zichron Yaakov a member of the younger generation who impressed 

Aaron Aaronsohn was tall, strong, and proud that his family had 
been farmers. His spirit was as healthy as his body. He was still 
young, but he was already having the dreams which years later 
would lead to his discovery of a type of wild wheat which would 
become an important Palestinian crop and help revolutionize Jewish 
agriculture. This was the youth who was destined to achieve fame 
during World War I by guiding British troops through the desert 
and indicating to them where they might find water. 

Aaronsohn s sister Sarah was to become the Jeanne d Arc of Pales 
tine in that same war, helping to found a Jewish intelligence service 
for the British, but finally being tortured to the point of suicide by 
Turks who seized her when a note die had written to General Al- 
lenby was captured. 

The next day the Ben Yehudas went to Athlit, which in less than 
a quarter of a century was destined to play a spectacular rqle in war, 
for here Jews were to help liberate their own land from Turkish 
rule by sending secret signals to ships of the British navy. 

Then on to Haifa, with a great bay at its feet and with Mount 
Carmel high above it, like a crown; Haifa, which one day would be 
come the second city of Israel and boast of one of the finest ports in 


Tongue of the Prophets 

the Middle East, but which in those days was a backward and pre 
dominantly Arab town. When Ben Yehuda found that the Deer had 
many readers in Haifa he asked several people to send him news 
letters occasionally. From each he received the same reply. What 
would they write about? Nothing ever happened here. There was no 
. Jewish life. Even tourists from abroad, if they came to Haifa > just 
rushed through on their way to Nazareth. 

On the way to Nazareth, Hemda kept asking how much farther 
it was, because the heat was so great and she was so thirsty. When 
they finally reached Nazareth, Eliezer and the horses were also badly 
in need of water. 

In the center of the town they found some Arab women drawing 
water from a well. The Ben Yehudas approached them with words 
of greeting spoken in Arabic, but the women picked up handfuls of 
stones and pelted the strangers, shouting angrily at them: 

"Jews! Jews!" 

"It is ironical," said Eliezer, "that this is the well, in the New 
Testament, from which Mary was accustomed to draw water ! 

"Someday, Hemda, this place and Bethlehem will be testing 
stones of the Jewish respect for the shrines of others. Nazareth has 
little significance in our own history, but to Christians it is of su 
preme importance. I am sure that when we become masters in our 
own land we shall show the world that we can watch over the shrines 
of others as carefully as over our own/ 5 

Now they began the long descent to Lake Tiberias, known in the 
New Testament as the Sea of Galilee, where in summer it is insuf 
ferably hot because it is nearly seven hundred feet below sea level. As 
usual, the heat in Tiberias was so intense that the Ben Yehudas were 
unable to sleep. For years Hemda remembered it because here every 
thing they were offered to drink was full of small flies, and Eliezer re 
fused each glass or cup that was extended to him because of his 
almost fanatical hatred of insects, for which he had a special He 
brew expression meaning "repugnant filthy creatures." The native 
people laughed and said he would die of thirst if he remained there 
long. "You drink flies here or you don t drink at all!" 

The next morning at sunrise they took a boat trip around the lake 
whore many of the New Testament incidents had taken place. 


Burned Career 

Eliezer s repetition of the parable of the fishes and loaves of bread 
was so graphic that Hemda, looking at the spot, felt she could almost 
see, in that strange early-morning light, Christ s disciples gathering 
up the baskets of crumbs left after the multiplication of the loaves. 

The settlement of Rosh Pinah was to be the next stop. On this 
part of the trip they were accompanied by David Idelovitch. They 
were traveling in a coach drawn by three horses down a road which 
was hardly a road at all, when the carriage suddenly collapsed. The 
driver, surveying the wreckage, said it was beyond repair; they 
would have to continue on foot if they wished to continue at all. 

The sun was hot enough, as Idelovitch seriously pointed out, to 
fry an egg on a flat stone. They were stranded in the middle of a 
desert wilderness. As they surveyed the landscape, Hemda noticed 
on the horizon a small building which looked like a ruin, but, he 
said, "at least we could get protection there from the heat and per 
haps the driver could walk to the next village and find us a convey 

The coachman was violently opposed to this plan, 

"That place," he warned them in an ominous voice, pointing to 
the structure Hemda had seen, "is the hiding place of the worst band 
of thieves and assassins in this part of the world !" 

Just then, out of a cloud of dust, a number of horses appeared and 
everyone relaxed. The riders were young farmers from Rosh Pinah. 
When they told Hemda she would have to ride horseback, she pro 
tested, remembering that Nissim Behar s wife had died as the result 
of a fall from a horse, but one of the young farmers got her onto a 
saddle and walked beside her to quiet her fears. 

At Rosh Pinah they were guests in the home of the baron s repre 
sentative. As Hemda, travel-stained and weary from days of primi 
tive living, wandered through the house staring at its luxurious 
furnishings and the table set with sparkling crystal and silver and 
expensive French china, she turned to Eliezer and whispered : 

"This really is like Paris, isn t it? Yet we are still practically in the 
middle of the desert!" 

In Hebrew the baron s representative gave Eliezer an account of 
progress being made at Rosh Pinah. 

"We have fields and vineyards," he said, "and an abundance of 


Tongue of the Prophets 

fruit trees. The land flows with Tn.ilk and honey, as the Bible says it 
should. Each man lies under his vine and his fig tree and is happy 
with his lot . . ." 

Eliezer finally interrupted this report which made Rosh Pinah 
sound like a new Garden of Eden to ask: 

"What about the Hebrew language?" 

The administrator, looking around as a man might who was about 
to reveal a great military secret, finally whispered : 

"Less French is spoken here than in most settlements!" 

Then, looking over his shoulder again to be sure no eavesdropper 
had entered the room, he added in even more of a whisper: 

"You must not allow this to become known, for if the baron were 
to hear . . . ! The baron, you know, does not believe in nation 
alism in any of its manifestations. He wants only settlements and 
simple farmers who work the land. The baron has a most negative 
attitude toward Zionism !" 



Oriental Fashion 


certain generalizations about the settlements in the north. They had 
found that the entire area was afflicted with malaria; that it took a 
long time for people from Europe to become acclimated to the in 
tense heat; that a great percentage of Jews caught contagious skin 
and eye diseases from contact with their Arab neighbors, and that 
the biggest impediment to colonization was that the pioneers were 
mostly men who, in the countries of their origin, had engaged in 
commerce or the professions and therefore were not adapted by 
training or temperament to tilling the soil. 

But now they heard about a new settlement that was being estab 
lished which would be free of most of these handicaps. At a spot 
called Metulla, on a hilltop facing the white snow mountain of 
Hermon, a group of second-generation farmers was to found the 
most northerly colony in the entire "Land of Our Dreams," as Ben 
Yehuda so often called Palestine. Here the air would be cool and 
here there would be no malaria to battle. 

It was a gay party that started out one evening from Rosfa Pinah 
for Metulla. There were three carriages. Hemda was able to relax in 

Tongue of the Prophets 

the comfort of a real landau. They took quantities of food, and some 
of the young men brought musical instruments. 

Hemda, who was still young, although she had borne two children 
already, became a carefree girl again that moonlight night and sang 
and made jokes with the young farmers. 

It was 3 A.M. when they arrived at Metulla, but they were all so 
exhilarated by the clean, pure air that no one wanted to go to bed, 
so they stayed up to watch the rising sun gild Mount Hermon with 
its touches of golds, pinks, and lavenders. 

There were thirty young settlers at Metulla, living in primitive 
mud huts which had been abandoned by the native Druses from 
whom the land had been purchased at an exorbitant price. Hemda 
was intrigued by stories of these fanatical Arab people. They be 
longed to a secret religious sect founded in the eleventh century by 
a missionary named Darazi. They had many strange convictions. 
They believed that the wicked became camels and dogs; that God 
had appeared to man exactly seventy times in the past in various 
disguises, and that there is a fixed number of humans on earth which 
never changes. 

The Druses of Metulla had all left, except one family. After the 
man had accepted the price agreed upon for his holdings, his wife 
had refused to budge. It was the settlement s first real problem. 
Someone suggested Hemda might be able to argue the woman out 
of her stubbornness, but as she entered the Druse dwelling place she 
immediately regretted having undertaken the assignment. 

In the one-room primitive abode, made of cakes of dried mud, 
animals and humans lived in the closest possible proximity, a cow 
in one corner, a donkey and chickens in a second, the children in a 
third, and the adults in the fourth. Even grain was stored there. 

The woman, her half dozen screaming children clustered around 
her, refused to listen to anything Hemda said through an interpreter. 

It was a real predicament. Sundown was approaching and there 
was fear that this woman s obstreperousness might upset the other 
Druses who had been invited to a celebration to solemnize the busi 
ness deal and who would soon be arriving. 

In desperation Hemda remembered something, so she hurried 
to the landau and found some sweet cakes, which she gave to the 


Oriental Fashion 

half dozen children. As their screaming stopped, the mother, no 
longer having her Greek chorus as an accompaniment^ suddenly 
ceased her wailing and also accepted some of the sweets Hemda held 
out to her. 

While the woman was eating Hemda talked softly to her about 
the beautiful new house her husband would be able to build with the 
money the Jews had given him, and what a happy life she had ahead 
of her. 

It worked ! It worked so well that Hemda had difficulty getting 
rid of the woman, who insisted on staying close at her side wherever 
she went the rest of the evening. 

The only substantial building in Metulla was a brick structure 
occupied by the baron s representative. This was where the Ben 
Yehudas were to stay. There was no furniture. Hemda was told she 
would have to sleep on a blanket on the floor like the others. As she 
was thinking back to the elegant Parisian-type home she had just 
left in Rosh Pinah, Eliezer remarked: 

"This is like a military camp. I find nothing wrong with it. We 
really are all soldiers. There is no reason Jews should not endure a 
few hardships until they can make a comfortable living for them 
selves. Of course it will take months of work to build chicken houses, 
barns, and dwellings, but work never hurt anyone." 

Later, however, as he saw how the others were living in mud huts, 
he was a little more sympathetic to their complaints. One of the 
Jewish farmers had already paid a high price for this unsanitary 
way of life. During the night a snake came through the roof of his 
hut while he slept. There was no doctor within many miles and no 
medicine. He died in a few hours. 

The party for the Druses lasted all night. Hemda left early and 
curled up on a blanket on the floor of the administration building, 
but she was not permitted to sleep, for the Druses kept shooting off 
rifles at frequent intervals as a sign of the importance they attached 
to the proceedings. It was dawn before the last Druse trekked off 
and left Metulla to the Jews. 

But that was just a preliminary to the feast the next day. Jewish 
settlers from nearby colonies had been invited, *and also a limited 
number of Arab leaders, because it was necessary to establish cordial 


Tongue of the Prophets 

relations immediately with all neighbors. Only the sheik of each ad 
joining village had received an invitation, but each sheik brought 
along his brothers, his sons, his sons-in-law, and even a few servants 
and womenfolk. Sixty in all. 

Many lambs had to be killed, for the slaughtering of lambs was 
an outward symbol of the respect one had for one s guests, the num 
ber of lambs indicating the extent of the respect. The Arab chief 
tains must have no doubts about the esteem in which the Jews held 

Also, it was necessary to prepare all the dishes in the Arab man 
ner, else the guests would refuse to eat. 

Hemda watched with fascination as the preparations were made. 
In addition to the lambs many fowl were killed. Vast quantities of 
rice were cooked in Arabic butter in large steel barrels. Watermelons 
had been brought from Hedera, quinces from Petach Tikvah, grapes 
from Rosh Pinah, and figs from a nearby village. There were Arabic 
sweetmeats, and to drink they had the juice of Indian date root. 
Wine was kept out of sight because of the Moslem ban against any 
thing alcoholic. 

One thing puzzled Hemda. She saw no tables being laid. 

Late in the afternoon the sheiks started to appear, riding beautiful 
mares and followed by their servants on donkeys. 

The administration building quickly filled up, and still Hemda 
saw no tables. While the servants remained outside to guard the 
horses, the Arab notables took their places, squatting on the floor in 
a great circle. The food was then brought in, not on plates, not on 
platters, but on immense trays. One tray was placed in front of each 
guest. Hands were used instead of knives, forks, and spoons. As 
soon as one tray was emptied another quickly appeared. 

"I never saw food consumed so fast!" Hemda whispered to 
Eliezer. Before she herself had decided whether to try to manage 
with her hands or to shock everyone by calling for at least a spoon, 
the meal was over. 

What was left of the food was taken outside for the servants and 
the Arab women who had trailed along. 

Meanwhile the Arab men were drinking an interminable number 


Oriental Fashion 

of cups of thick Turkish coffee and smoking their strange-looking 
water pipes. 

Next (as after any banquet, whether on the edge of a Palestinian 
desert or in Paris or New York) there were speeches^ including an 
exchange of mutual compliments, and a series of congratulations 
from the Arabs on the founding of the village. Then more coffee 
and more pipe smoking. 

The visitors left with protestations of friendship which they ex 
pressed by saying: 

"We shall be good neighbors and protect you, our children, from 
all evil." 

The Jewish leader gave a sigh of relief and ordered a meal pre 
pared for strictly Jewish consumption. Another lamb was killed and 
cooked, along with a few chickens and some vegetables. 

"But who is going to eat all of this?" Ben Yehuda asked, for there 
were only half a dozen of them present 

The young Jewish leader laughed. 

"After all the exercise I have had, I shall eat half of it myself and 
leave the rest for the remainder of you !** 

During this private meal there was much singing of Jewish songs 
and some drinking of wine. 

After they had finished they went out intq the village square, 
where the rest of the settlers were having their own banquet. While 
Hemda and Eliezer watched in amazement, the young Jewish leader 
sat down and, as if he had not had a mouthful of food since morn 
ing, consumed enough to feed a small family for days. 

Here there were more speeches, more wine, and the shooting of 
rifles into the air until the stars began to twinkle overhead and the 
less hardy ones went off to bed, among them the Ben Yehudas. 

Thus Metulla, the northernmost settlement in the land of the 
Jews, was formally founded with prayers that she might become the 
"Pearl of the North," a hope which did not immediately materialize, 
because for a long time there was doubt that Metulla would survive. 
It was not until many years later that she finally did become one of 
the most important of the North Galilee colonies. 


If You Will It . . . 


news that Israel Zangwill, the brilliant British author, was coming 
from London to Jerusalem for a visit, along with a delegation of the 
Order of Ancient Maccabaeans, headed by the grand commander, 
Herbert Bentwich. 

"Bitti, this is an opportunity such as we seldom get !" he exclaimed 
to his wife. "Millions of people read what Zangwill writes. He is one 
of the most popular authors of the day. If we could only convince 
him and enlist his pen in our fight !" 

So Eliezer Ben Yehuda sent a letter to Zangwill offering him the 
hospitality of the modest Ben Yehuda home. 

When Zangwill and his Maccabaeans arrived they were received 
in Jerusalem with great honor, not only by leaders of the Jewish 
community but by British diplomats as well. 

Zangwill paid the first of many visits to the Ben Yehuda home one 
hot afternoon. As he sat talking with Hemda and Eliezer, Deborah, 
who then was barely four, came running in from the garden and 
with a ladylike curtsy presented the celebrated visitor with a rose 
she had picked. Zangwill bent over and kissed the child, then tried 
to make conversation with her* 


// You Will It . . . 

The parents laughed and Eliezer said: 

"There is no use, Zangwill. My children speak only Hebrew/* 

"But I learned Hebrew myself as a child! Let me see if I can 
remember a few words. 5 * 

So with an accent so "foreign" that Deborah could hardly under 
stand him, the British writer tried to speak the language of his 
ancestors to the child of his host. 

Eliezer took his guest into his shop to show him the old hand press 
on which the Deer was still being printed. To it was affixed a small 
statue of Gutenberg, the fifteenth-century German who, by invent 
ing movable type, became the "patron saint" of printers all over the 

Before he left the shop Zangwill raised his hand over the press and 
pronounced a Hebrew benediction, ending with the words lazman 
hazeh, meaning "having reached this time." It was a subtle play on 
words, for Ben Yehuda realized that Zangwill was thus comparing 
his little paper to the great Times of London. 

There were many meetings between the two writers. Gradually 
Zangwill seemed to be catching the contagion of Israel. When Ben 
Yehuda suggested he deliver a public lecture on some historical 
Jewish subject, the British novelist promptly agreed. 

The lecture was given in the Grand New Hotel of Jerusalem and 
was attended by Jewish, Moslem, and Christian dignitaries. Zang 
will spoke on "Jews in the Holy Land" and made frequent reference 
to Jesus Christ, concluding his lecture with these words : 

"How many injustices have been done to Jews in Thy name !" 

It was after this successful public appearance that Ben Yehuda 
one day, talking privately to the visitor, said : 

"Zangwill, you have glorified the life of Jews in the ghettos in 
many books. Now you have seen something of the life of Jews here 
in the place they really belong. Why do you not return and make 
your home with us and glorify our new national life in your future 

Zangwill did not immediately reply, but his expression indicated 
that the suggestion tempted him. Finally he said: 

"As you know, I am leaving tomorrow. Please come down and 
see me off." 


Tongue of the Prophets 

As Zangwill left there were tears in his eyes. 

On the way home Ben Yehuda said to his wife : 

"Unless I am very mistaken, we have won him to our cause!" 

Ben Yehuda devoted much of the next issue of the Deer to the 
visit. For days Jerusalem talked about Zangwill, always using posses 
sive little words about him. He was "our Zangwill" to them. 

Although Zangwill had left without giving a definite answer to 
the invitation to come to Palestine to live, Ben Yehuda waited im 
patiently for his next book, certain that at least he would put into 
print the emotions he had so obviously experienced. 

The next Zangwill book was Dreamers of the Ghetto. It was not 
about the Promised Land. 

Eliezer Ben Yehuda was bitterly disappointed. 

About this time Hemda happened to meet some visitors from 
abroad who added another chapter to an old story. They were from 
Sweden and knew Tshashnikov, Eliezer s Polish journalist friend, 
who, they said, had gone to Sweden, but at the time of Deborah s 
death had wanted to return to Jerusalem and offer his consolation 
and see Deborah s children but had not been certain how welcome 
he would be. Recently he had married a Swedish girl who, he said, 
reminded him of Deborah. 

Hemda wondered whether she should tell Eliezer. 

Intellectuals and liberals the world over in these days were aroused 
to a fever pitch by the Dreyfus case. Ben Yehuda threw his small 
weekly paper into the fight against the forces of bigotry and intoler 

Article after article appeared in the Deer calling on the Jews of 
the world for their support of the Frenchman who was being perse 
cuted because he was a Jew. 

This was the sort of fight Eliezer Ben Yehuda liked. Father Yonas 
would have liked it too. 

But now something happened which relegated the Dreyfus case 
to a position of relative unimportance in the Deer and in Ben 
Yehuda s mind. 

In 1896, seventeen years after Ben Yefcuda had issued his first ap 
peal for a Jewish homeland and a revival of the Hebrew language, 

// You Will It . . . 

a book entitled Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) had been pub 
lished by a brilliant Hungarian journalist and playwright, Theo- 
dor Herd, correspondent for Neue Freie Presse in Vienna. 

Ben Yehuda knew of Herd, but up to now they had been dia 
metrically opposed on most issues. Herzl had written for his paper 
that the Dreyfus case was of no particular importance and that the 
Jewish officer was probably guilty. 

Just four years before his publication of The Jewish State Herd 
had said in a newspaper article that "the historical homeland of the 
Jews no longer has any value for them; it is childish [for a Jew] to 
go in search of the geographical location of his homeland." 

This article had come out at a time when Ben Yehuda and his 
colleagues were fighting such lonely battles for the Zionist cause. 

But now Herd had changed his mind and in his book had argued 
for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, to be chartered by the 
Turkish authorities and financed by colonization companies. 

There had been Zionists, although they were not called that, since 
the year 70, when the Temple was destroyed. In every generation 
there had been dreamers and visionaries who talked of a Jewish 
return to the homeland. George Eliot, in 1876, when Eliezer was at 
school in Diinaburg, had written Daniel Deronda, which for years 
was the Bible of Zionists. 

Eliezer Ben Yehuda himself had written and worked for seventeen 
years before HerzTs book came out to give the dream substance. 
But Herzl was a "man of action" and now was leaping into a posi 
tion of leadership which would win him the title of the "Father of 
Modern Zionism" and after his death would cause his name to be 
spoken almost with reverence by Jews in every part of the world who 
believed in the dream. 

One of his chief contributions was to be a single sentence which 
was to become a slogan for Zionists the world over. 

"If you will it, it is no dream!" 

Herzl had followed up his book by issuing a call for a world-wide 
conference of Jews to take place at Basle, Switzerland, in August 

Associated with him were many men Ben Yehuda knew and re 
spected, among them Israel Zangwill and Herbert Bentwich, whom 


Tongue of the Prophets 

he had so recently entertained in Jerusalem, and two of the most 
important French Zionists, Dr. Max Nordau and Dr. Alexander 
Marmorek, who at that time was working on a cure for tubercu 

Ben Yehuda should have gone himself to Basle, for the conference 
had been called to discuss the idea which had been his obsession since 
his student days in Paris. But, as he pointed out to his wife, there 
were two reasons why he would have to report the proceedings from 
a distance. The Ben Yehuda financial situation made such a trip 
impossible. Besides, the Turkish officials would not permit it. He 
was a subject of the Ottoman Empire and had so recently been ac 
cused of "revolt against the kingdom" that the right to travel had 
been denied him, and there was no court of appeal. 

But as he read the call for the conference, Ben Yehuda exclaimed 
to his wife: 

"Would it not be wonderful, Bitti, if these men were to declare 
from their platform, for all the world to hear, that Jews should 
return to their own land and make it a place where they could live as 
free people?" 

Yet Ben Yehuda, in his most excited dreams, had no idea the 
Basle conference would dare go as far as it did. 

With firmness and clarity the leaders of world Jewry at Basle an 
nounced that their ancient homeland, Eretz Israel, must become the 
new abode of Jewish people. They went so far as to state their pro 
gram in these words no one could misunderstand: 

"Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and 
legally assured home in Palestine." 

V\ A World Zionist Organization was created. Any Jew anywhere in 
the world could belong by agreeing with the Basle aims and paying 
one shekel, one mark, one shilling, or one American quarter. 

A council of distinguished Jews was elected, with Herd as presi 

There was talk of the erection of a Hebrew university in Jeru 
salem, of the creation of a Jewish national fund, and the setting up 
of a Jewish world bank in London to finance colonization. 

A song written in Hebrew was accepted as an anthem of a country 
yet to be born. A design was adopted for a national flag of blue and 


If You Will It . . . 

white, the colors of the traditional prayer shawl, emblazoned with 
the Star of David. 

It was only a few days after all this news arrived that Ben Yehuda 
received a letter in longhand, written by Herzl himself, announcing 
that the editor of the Deer had been unanimously elected a member 
of the executive board. 

For days Ben Yehuda went around Jerusalem as if in a trance. 
This was what he had been working for all these years. Now that it 
had happened, he was intoxicated with the news that came pouring 
in from Basle. 

There was only one sour note. The congress had concerned itself 
with a flag, a song, and many more trivial matters, but no mention 
had been made of a national language; a revival of Hebrew. Why 
had not some friend of his insisted on this? They might create a 
nation without a flag, without an anthem, but they never could do 
it without a language ! 

It was Hemda, as usual, who tried to console her husband, arguing 
that there would be other Zionist congresses and plenty of time to 
convince the leaders of their oversight. 

What was done at Basle created some immediate problems for 
Ben Yehuda. He was forced to write to Herzl and explain why it 
was out of the question for him to accept membership on the ex 
ecutive board. Friends in Turkish government circles had warned 
him that, if he were to accept, his days of activity in Palestine would 
quickly come to an end. He must remember, they said, how close 
he had come to serving a prison term. He still was not out of the 
shadow of the bars. 

The government in Constantinople had been astonished, he was 
told, by the "effrontery" of the Jews. They talked of Palestine as if 
it were their country! This new movement must be stamped out 
before it spread. A series of new decrees was being planned as an 
answer to the Jews of Basle. 

Then the Turkish censor, Ishmael Bey, sent for him and made it 
more positive. 

"Not a word about this thing called Zionism 3 must be printed in 
your paper. The expression Eretz Israel must never be used. There 


Tongue of the Prophets 

is no such thing as Israel. The place is Palestine. You do not have 
a country, you Jews, and you never shall have. Remember that!" 

When he returned home from the censor s office Ben Yehuda 
poured out his grief to his wife. 

"Bitti, how can I write about Zionism without using the word? 
How can I try to win support for this movement without mention 
ing Israel? 5 * 

Hemda reminded him that the censor had not forbidden him to 
write about a revival of the Hebrew language, which, after all, was 
his own great project. 

"Now, Eliezer, you can be thankful that they did not include a 
national language in their program at Basle, for if they had, the 
censor surely would have prohibited your writing about it !" 

In the days and weeks which followed, Ben Yehuda watched 
carefully for reaction from abroad. What stand would England, 
France, and Germany take? These great powers exerted considerable 
influence over the "Sick Man of Europe," as Turkey was often 

And what would the reaction be in the Vatican? After all, it was 
Rome which put handcuffs on the Jews nearly two thousand years 
ago and started this long era of slavery. What would Rome now say 
to the announcement of the Jews that they finally were going to 
break loose from this bondage? 

Ben Yehuda had to wait a long time to get answers to all these 
questions, but he found out within a few days what some people 
thought of the plan. Many learned and cultured Arab friends came 
to him and expressed their happiness. One of them put it this way: 

"Through you we also will be liberated from this ruthless tyrant, 
the Sultan, Abdul Hamid II. We have seen what you Jews have ac 
complished in the desert. We favor your revival of the Hebrew 
language because it is so similar to our own. We must remember 
that Arabs and Jews are children of the same father." 

Of course there were Jews in Jerusalem who thought that a great 
mistake had been made by even calling the Basle conference. When 
new decrees finally came from Constantinople banning all further 
Jewish immigration into Palestine, forbidding the purchase of land 
by Jews, and reimposing the ban on the construction of Jewish 


// You Will It . . . 

dwelling places, these timid members of the Jewish community were 
quick to say: "We told you so!" 

But Ben Yehuda was accustomed to such opposition. Bade for 
him was a stimulant which inspired him to work even longer hours 
than usual on both his paper and his dictionary. 

Often when Hemda entered his study she found him pacing up 
and down the long room with one hand to his head, in such deep 
thought that he would fail to notice her presence. Once she found 
him standing in front of his desk looking up at the slogan he had 
tacked to the wall: 


When he saw her he pointed to the motto and said: 

"How much truer those words are now than ever before! They 
drive me on and keep me from sleeping, for now more than ever 
we need a language, now more than ever we need a real newspaper. 5 * 

One result of the Zionist Congress was that Ben Yehuda, instead 
of having to rely now on the contributions of young, unknown 
writers, was able to obtain articles for his paper from such men as 
Zangwill and Nordau. 

But Ben. Yehuda wanted to make some outstanding contribution 
of his own to the cause, so he prepared what he called "The Second 
Appeal," a sequel to the first call he had issued for the resettlement 
of Palestine eighteen years ago in the Vienna paper, just before he 
himself had emigrated to the Holy Land. 

In his second appeal Ben Yehuda laid stress on a point he thought 
had been overlooked at Basle. This new movement, he wrote, was 
not merely for those who had deeply religious reasons for returning 
to the land of their fathers. This must be a movement of all Jews, 
whether they were extremely Orthodox in their religious beliefs^ or 
had adopted the assimilationist position, or even if they had em 
braced Christianity. 

Ben Yehuda was even more specific than that. He called on Jews 
abroad who had married non- Jewish women and were the fathers 
of half-Jewish children to turn their eyes toward the Promised Land. 
All of them, he wrote, would be welcome. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Then, raising a point which would become a bone of contention 
in future years, when the dream turned into an actuality, he argued 
that the fate of this land must not be dictated only by those who 
were Orthodox in their beliefs. 

This second appeal, although avoiding the technical pitfalls the 
censor had warned about, was unpleasing to the Turkish authorities, 
but it was received with acclaim by most Jews, except those who 
were already lining up as confirmed opponents of Zionism. 


Garden of Eden 


quickly followed by another development which affected the Ben 
Yehudas 5 personal future as much as the decisions taken at the 
meeting in Switzerland were ultimately to affect the future lives of 
so many millions of Jews. 

The Jewish Colonization Association, organized by Jewish philan 
thropists in England to help transplant Jews, came to Eliezer s assist 
ance by advancing him the sum of five thousand francs to use as he 
saw fit. 

It was typical that he spent the money in this order: 

First he wiped a considerable number of debts from his books. 

Next he bought some new type for his printing shop which not 
only would give the Deer a fresh and more attractive appearance 
but also could be used, when the time came, to set his dictionary 
into print. 

Finally he turned what was left over to his wife, saying: 

"Bitti, you have struggled along with me in these inadequate old 
quarters long enough. You have been a good soldier about it. But 
now we are going to have a real home." 

It took Hemda only a short time to find what she considered a 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"dream house." It was a stone building, large and roomy, set in the 
middle of an immense garden. At the same time she succeeded in 
renting from a neighbor a two-story structure adjoining the property 
to house the printing shop. There was a caretaker s lodge which 
Hemda made into a real bathroom by leading water from a nearby 
cistern through a rubber hose which stretched across the garden and 
through the lodge window. This improvised bathroom soon became 
one of Jerusalem s showpieces. Hotels in those days had bathrooms, 
but not private homes, so visitors from abroad, after they had seen 
the other sights of the ancient city, were often taken to the Ben 
Yehuda place to see what Hemda called "Jerusalem s first private 

Eliezer Ben Yehuda was happy in his new home. Now at last he 
had an adequately large study and the privacy he had always 
needed, for the nursery was on the other side of the house instead of 
being next door to his room. 

He enjoyed working in the garden. There were forty flower beds 
to be cared for, and almond, fig, and olive trees, as well as grape 
vines. At the entrance stood two tall rose laurels with a bench be 
tween them. There, in summer, Ben Yehuda took his afternoon tea 
and in winter his ten o clock morning refreshment. 

In the garden there was an old Roman ruin consisting of two low 
stone arches which the children loved to climb. In the interior of 
one arch they installed their small dog; in the other, the family 

Life was idyllic for a time in the Ben Yehuda Garden of Eden. It 
was in this period that Hemda gave birth to another child, a robust 
boy who inherited the name of Ehud, Hemda s second child, who 
had died. Ehud II was the eighth child to be born to the man who 
had been told by doctors nearly twenty years ago that his days were 
numbered and that he would soon be living on borrowed time. 

There were many reasons why this should have been the most 
serene period in Eliezer Ben Yehuda s life. 

His newspaper was prospering; he had adequate quarters in 
which to work on his dictionary; for once his family did not have to 
worry about whether there was money enough for the daily bread, 


Garden of Eden 

and all the forces which had fought him so bitterly for so many 
years at least temporarily had been routed. 

But now a new worry arose to plague him. Hemda had grown 
pale and thin. The malaria she had contracted had destroyed her 
vitality, and frequent attacks of rheumatism also caused her great 
pain. The Jerusalem doctors said a trip to Europe might help, and 
so Eliezer, still suffering from self-accusations about the death of 
Deborah, bought two steamship tickets and one day casually handed 
them to his wife, saying: 

"The boat sails from Jaffa tomorrow. I hope you can get ready in 

Hemda became panicky. Her latest child, Ehud II, was only six 
months old and she was still nursing him. There were five other 
children to think about. She had few clothes for a trip to Europe. 
Why were men so thoughtless and inconsiderate? 

Ben Yehuda listened calmly and then, picking up the tickets, said : 

"As you please, but it will be too bad to lose all the money I have 
spent on these tickets." 

So they sailed the next day. 

Hemda made her mother promise never to go farther away from 
the house than into the garden. She tried to pacify her daughter 
Deborah, who then was just five, by saying she would bring her back 
a talking doll from Paris and some pretty dresses. Ben Zion, Yemee- 
mah, and Hemda s brother and sister promised to help take care 
of the younger children. 

They sailed second-class on a French ship called the Orenoc, and 
as soon as land was out of sight Hemda relaxed and her husband 
swore to her that for the first time in months color had returned to 
her cheeks. 

Eliezer was as bubbling with excitement as a small boy on his way 
to a circus. 

"Bitti, in Paris we will find good doctors for you. And wonderful 
food. You have no idea what the food in Paris is like ! In seven or 
eight days we will be in the most exciting city in the world. I shall 
take you to places which will fascinate you, and after you get to 
know Paris, I shall work while you play." 

Hemda smiled. She had never seen her husband like this. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"There are many people to be seen in Europe. I wish to meet some 
of the great Orientalist scholars and discuss the dictionary with 
them. I need their help if I am to succeed in making it a popular 
dictionary for the everyday use of everyday people and also a 
scholarly work valuable for scientific men and students of languages. 

"I wish to visit many libraries and institutions and go through 
hundreds of books which cannot be obtained at home. 

"I wish to talk with Baron Rothschild and thank him for all he 
has done. We must meet Dr. Max Nordau, and perhaps Emile Zola. 

"We must see Narcisse Leven and other officers of the Alliance 
Israelite and thank them for their support. And then we must find 
Herzl. Maybe through Zangwill. It is necessary to persuade him to 
make Jerusalem the heart of Zionist activities." 

Eliezer s Paris 


was a boy again. 

The horse chestnuts along the Champs Elysees were in bloom, 
filling the air with their heady perfume. 

The cafes, great and small, had put their thousands of steel tables 
and chairs out onto the sidewalks so people could see and be seen as 
they drank their coffee or aperitifs. 

There were elegant ladies riding up and down the Rue du 
Faubourg St. Honore in shiny black carriages. 

Boulevard St. Michel was teeming with students whose joie de 
vivre infected the entire Left Bank. 

The great pillared church at the end of Rue Royale called the 
Madeleine had had its spring bath; its white stones glistened in the 
morning sun. 

The Ben Yehudas had sat up all night in the train from Marseille, 
but when they reached Paris, Eliezer was suddenly no longer tired. 

They went from the railway station directly to the small Hotel de 
Cologne on a side street just off the Boulevard des ItaHens which 
was patronized by so many visitors from Palestine that it was known 
even to hack drivers as the "Hotel des Palestiniens." 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Hemda suggested that they rest before starting out to explore the 
city, but Eliezer refused to allow her even to unpack a bag. 

He was like an old graduate returning to a college reunion. 

"We can sleep any time/ 3 he ejaculated. "But Paris won t wait !" 

So he hired a fiacre drawn by a horse which was so full of the 
spirit of spring that Hemda was terrified it would leave the pave 
ment and go galloping across the grass and into the trees. 

After a half hour Eliezer said in the voice of a small boy who has 
just suffered a grievous disappointment: 

"You do not seem a bit excited about Paris! 35 

His wife shrugged her shoulders and replied : 

"Such streets as these I have seen before, in Moscow. What is so 
wonderful about Paris?" 

Eliezer never tried harder to convince anyone of anything. 

"Bitti, it was here that I had my dream. Everyone dreams in 
Paris, of something or someone. Here a man may grow old in 
wisdom and learning, but at the same time he grows younger and 
younger in spirit. 

"But what is more important than anything else, Bitti 3 is that this 
is the country which has given the world three of the most wonderful 
words in any language: hberte, egalite, fraternite. They are stamped 
indelibly on the minds and hearts of the French people. Liberty, 
equality, fraternity! It is those things we want for our own people." 

Despite his exuberance, Eliezer was tired now, so when they 
reached the hotel he lay down for a nap, and his wife went off on a 
little expedition of her own. 

Although she was wearing a costume which had been made for 
her by the best tailor in Jerusalem, she realized that people in the 
streets had been staring at her. She had even been able to tell by his 
glances that the concierge at their hotel thought her appearance odd. 
Knowing that something must be done about it, she wandered 
around the Right Bank until she found a department store called 
the Louvre. Maybe here she could get some clothes which would 
make her look as French as the paintings in the museum which 
bore the same name. 

As fast as she made her purchases she insisted, to the bewilder 
ment of the salesgirls, on putting them on. When she finally returned 


Eliezer*s Paris 

to the hotel she was carrying in bundles under her arms most of the 
Palestinian clothes she had been wearing when she started out. 

She was rewarded when the concierge beamed and said: 

"Now you look like a grande darnel" 

Eliezer also liked the purchases and, following her example, he 
went on a shopping spree, returning with a pair of elegant gloves 
and a chapeau a haute forme, one of those cylindrical silk hats which 
fold up as flat as a pancake but can be extended to a height of more 
than a foot by virtue of a set of concealed springs. This, he ex 
plained, was an indispensable article for a gentleman in Paris, and 
he was going to be a gentleman in Paris this time ! 

Each evening, after a day of sight-seeing, the Ben Yehudas made 
their way to the Cafe Souffle, where they would at by the hour 
summarizing their impressions, or talking with writers and artists 
who frequented the place. 

One evening Eliezer announced that as soon as possible he wanted 
to call on Dr. Max Nordau, the Jewish writer and scientist who had 
played such an important part in the Basle congress. Hemda quickly 

"When you go to see him, you go alone. I heard in Jerusalem that 
he is a violent woman hater; that he detests all members of the op 
posite sex!" 

"But, Bitti, what if he is? He can t bite you! If he hates women, 
the worst he can do is to ignore you." 

A letter was written to Max Nordau, and back, quickly, came an 
invitation to call. 

The two men had never met before and yet such was their 
admiration of each other that they kissed in French fashion and 
threw their arms around each other s shoulders. Henada stood at a 
discreet distance studying this man who was supposed to be such a 
misogynist. His hair and beard were white, but he had a young and 
handsome face, with soft, intelligent eyes. Hemda knew that he had 
come to Paris from Germany, where he had studied medicine; that 
he now not only was a practicing physician, but had established a 
reputation as an authority on art, literature, and social questions. 
He had written several excellent books and had been the "golden- 
voiced orator * at the Basle congress. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

While he was greeting Eliezer there was a knock at the door. 

"Entrez!" he shouted over his shoulder, and in came a tall blond 
young woman whom he introduced as his wife. 

"One more proof/ 3 Hemda later said to her husband, "that one 
must never believe Jerusalem gossip." 

Hemda took an immediate fancy to Mrs. Nordau and to her 
infant daughter, Maxa, whom she carried in her arms. Although 
Mrs. Nordau was Danish, she had a warmth which Hemda had 
never associated with Scandinavians. She once had been a celebrated 
opera singer. 

After a short time she kissed her husband good-by, excused her 
self to the Ben Yehudas, and said: 

"I m sorry I must go home now, but I would like all of you to 
have dinner with me some night soon. You can arrange a date with 
my husband. 33 

After she had left Dr. Nordau explained. He lived here in this 
house with his mother and sister, both of whom had been opposed 
to his romance with the Danish girl, not because she had previously 
been married, nor because she had had several children by her first 
husband, but because she was a Christian. He had begged for his 
mother s understanding, but she had remained firm in her opposi 
tion. So they had been secretly married and Mrs. Nordau still lived 
in her own home with her children by the previous marriage and 
with little Maxa, their own child, while he still lived in this house 
with his mother and sister. 

"And now that I am taking a leading part in the Zionist move 
ment, I wonder what others will say." 

Then he shrugged his shoulders and added: 

"However, my wife and I are very much in love and, as you saw, 
we have a wonderful child !" 

During the visit Eliezer received much encouragement from Dr. 
Nordau, Hemda received some pills he thought might help her re 
gain the strength to fight off the malaria, and they both received an 
invitation to dinner. 

On the way back to their hotel Eliezer said : 

"Perhaps your sickness has been a blessing in disguise. I feel that 


Eliezefs Paris 

this trip is going to be profitable to us in many ways. Just meeting 
Nordau has been worth the journey!" 

Ben Yehuda s conference with Narcisse Leven, founder of the 
Alliance Israelite, was even more successful. Although in principle 
the Alliance Israelite was not in favor of a Hebrew revival in Pales 
tine, Leven declared that he and his associates were interested in the 
dictionary project and would provide additional financing. A limited 
sum would be forthcoming immediately to enable Ben Yehuda to 
remain in Paris for a few weeks and work in the National Library 
gathering material. This meant that the small monthly allowance 
from Baron Rothschild could be sent to Jerusalem to finance the 
rest of the family. 

Leven even promised Hemda to take care of the children s educa 
tion in Paris as fast as they grew old enough to be sent abroad, so 
that night Hemda wrote to her mother to send her sister Peninnah 
to Paris at once. 

Although Hemda gave no indication of having become "infected" 
with Paris, she was excited by the theater. Now that a living allow 
ance had been granted to them, she took what was left of the money 
they had brought from Jerusalem and bought tickets for a number 
of plays and operas, fearing that unless she did the money would go 
for "more practical things." 

Once Hemda bought two tickets for Meyerbeer s Le Prophete 
and was looking forward to her first evening at the Paris opera with 
great anticipation. She had already begun to dress when Eliezer re 
turned to their hotel room and said: 

"You must look very pretty for the dinner tonight!" 


"Yes, I am sure I told you that tonight we dine with the 

Mrs. Nordau s apartment was small but furnished in impeccable 
taste. The salon was lined with books. There was great excitement 
when the Ben Yehudas arrived; their hostess had a surprise for them. 

Israel Zangwill, who was on his way back to London from a visit 
in Italy, had heard that his Jerusalem friends were in town and said 


Tongue of the Prophets 

he wanted to see them and accepted an invitation to the Nordau 
dinner with the understanding that the Ben Yehudas not be told in 

With the British writer came a lovely Englishwoman, a painter, 
Miss Stewart. An American artist, Louis Loeb, was also a guest. 

As they were drinking coffee Hemda remarked to her host: 

"I am enjoying the evening so much that I do not even mind 
having missed the opera." 

When she was asked what she meant, she told about having tickets 
for Le Prophete, whereupon Dr. Nordau looked at his watch, ran 
out and got the Ben Yehudas 5 wraps, and insisted that they still had 
time to get there before the end of the second act. 

"One does not give up a first night at the opera even for a Zang- 
will!" he said with a laugh, and then went out into the street to find 
a carriage for them. 

Hemda knew the works of Meyerbeer by heart. For Eliezer it was 
enough that the composer was a Jew who had achieved top rank in 
the field of music, competing successfully with the best of Italian, 
German, and French composers. They both greatly enjoyed the per 
formance, even though it was based on a Christian theme. 

As they were leaving the opera house Hemda turned around to 
look at the crowd. 

"Such a staircase as that one I have never seen ! I thought one 
found such staircases only in royal palaces! Look, Eliezer, at the 
people descending! Did you ever see so much jewelry? Now I under 
stand what they mean when they say that a first night at the Paris 
opera is not the music, not the singing! No, nothing in Moscow was 
ever like this!" 

The Ben Yehudas spent four weeks in Paris. Not once were they 
plagued by such worries as they both had known for so long a time. 
They played like children, and Hemda was almost cured of her 
malaria, yet Eliezer did considerable serious work. 

He saw Baron Rothschild, whose generosity had saved his life 
when he was so ill and had to go to Algiers, and whose beneficence 
since then had helped so much with the financing of the paper and 
work on the dictionary. 


Eliezefs Paris 

When Eliezer thanked the wealthy banker f or all his kindness, 
Baron Rothschild, who had a reputation for a good memory, re 

"What do you thank me for? I do not quite understand, young 
man. Have I ever done anything for you?" 

Eliezer smiled. 

"Yes, sir. You have contributed about fifty thousand gold francs 
to my work!" 

"Indeed!" replied the baron, and that was all. 

Then they discussed Palestine and the baron s colonies. It was 
obvious that the great Jewish philanthropist was far from being a 
Zionist. In a kind but firm voice he said as Eliezer left: 

"I saved you once. Be careful now not to annoy the Turks witti 
your nationalistic writings!" 

Ben Yehuda was not able to see Emile Zola because he had gone 
abroad, but he did have a brief interview with Georges Clemenceau, 
who was deeply interested in all he had to say. But the great French 
statesman remarked that he could not understand how a person of 
intelligence could possibly be interested in Zionism, which he himself 
considered a retrogressive movement. He spoke bitterly of Palestine, 
calling it a country from which three religions had issued which he 
disliked in equal measure. He ended the interview with these words: 

"Voulez-vous la Palestine, Monsieur Ben Yehuda? Prenez-la, ette 
ne nous interesse pas [Mr. Ben Yehuda, you wish Palestine? Then 
take it, for it does not interest us] !" 

When Ben Yehuda made a final call on Narcisse Leven, the 
Alliance Israelite founder promised to consider allowing more 
Hebrew to be taught in the schools the organization sponsored in 
Palestine. He pointed out, however, that the Jewish Colonization 
Association, which he also headed, was favoring the settlement of 
Jews in Argentina rather than in Palestine. 

This was the worst news Ben Yehuda had heard and he tried to 
argue about it. The answer he got was: 

"We are afraid of the rabbis of Palestine. We are afraid of their 
interference. They insist that we follow all the Orthodox rules in 
our institutions. They themselves wish to run everything." 

The other big disappointment was that Ben Yehuda missed Herzl, 


Tongue of the Prophets 

who had been called back from Paris to Vienna by his newspaper. 
No one was certain when he would return. 

But Dr. Nordau promised that he would use his influence with 
the president of the Zionist Organization, and Ben Yehuda was 
certain that with Dr. Nordau on his side the Viennese journalist 
could be won over to a consideration of the point of view of those in 
Jerusalem who had been working for a reborn Israel for so many 
years before the congress at Basle had even been a dream. 



Hemdcts London 


of those dismal, mentally dampening rains. Besides, the Channel 
crossing had been the roughest voyage either of them had ever taken, 

Some acquaintance had suggested a small hotel in Houndsditch 
Street. It turned out to be a depressing place in the East End, 
patronized almost exclusively by Jewish traveling salesmen with 
limited expense accounts. It smelled from morning until night of 
herring, and its lobby was loud at all hours with noise and vulgarity, 
everyone speaking Yiddish and everyone speaking at once. 

"What a terrible contrast to Paris!" Eliezer said, and in his heart 
regretted there had been the necessity of coming to London. 

The next day they telephoned Israel ZangwilL In Paris they had 
told him they expected to arrive in London on a certain Saturday 
and he had said, with an appearance of casualness : 

"If you do get to London on Saturday, then come out to my 
place for dinner on Sunday. 35 

They had stayed in Paris one week longer than they had expected 
to. Now it was another Saturday. 

Zangwill sounded annoyed with them on the telephone. When he 
arrived at the hotel he made it clear \vhy. 

Tongue of the Prophets 

"What have you two done to me?" he began. 

Eliezer became panicky. He considered Zangwill one of the best 
friends he had ever made. Now Zangwill was angry. 

"What have we done? Tell us." 

Then the British writer explained. Thinking that the Ben Yehudas 
were definitely arriving on the previous Saturday, he had arranged a 
reception for them the following day. He had invited to his home to 
meet them sixty of his most celebrated friends: writers, scholars, 
journalists, and artists. They had stood around for hours waiting 
impatiently for the guest of honor. 

"Quite embarrassing! Quite embarrassing, old fellow! Now they 
think Ben Yehuda is just a character I invented !" 

Then, suddenly changing mood, he added: 

"But you shall be punished for your lack of punctuality! Tomor 
row you two shall dine with me, and there will be no reception, no 
other guests, just the family." 

Then, looking around the hotel, he said: 

"How on earth, my dear chap, did you ever land in this place? 
You must get out of here at once !" 

So the Ben Yehudas moved to a hotel in Kilburn, which was 
clean, respectable, and did not smell of fish. 

The Zangwill dinner was one party they never forgot. The family 
consisted of the writer s mother, whom Eliezer called "intelligent" 
and Hemda later described as "brilliant" ; two brothers, one a col 
lector of antiques, the other a cartoonist of ability, and two sisters, a 
musician and a dress designer. 

Before dinner, when Zangwill heard about Clemenceau s acrid 
comment on Zionism, he smiled and said : 

"Despite Clemenceau, Ben Yehuda, I think it will be a jolly lot 
easier to get support for our movement from non-Jews than from 
Jews. I have already found much opposition among our own people. 
Jews here in my country are strong for assimilation. The argument 
they use most against us is that if we do succeed in establishing 
Israel as a land of our own the day will come when non-Jews in 
various parts of the world will say to us: 

" All right, now you have a country, so go to it ! 

"How do we answer such timid souls, Ben Yehuda?" 


Hemda s London 

The man from Jerusalem replied that the Italians have a country, 
yet Italians who live in a place like New York are not told to go back 
to Italy, even though they had actually emigrated from Italy. 

Zangwill shook his head. 

"Even if someday we do achieve the dream, it will be used against 
us by Jews who are satisfied where they are and have little interest 
in the plight of fellow Jews not so happily off." 

In a more optimistic tone Zangwill went on to say that plans were 
already being made for a second Zionist congress at Basle. 

"I hope this time, Ben Yehuda, you will be present." 

But the man from Jerusalem shook his head. 

"I am more handicapped than you would ever believe by being 
an Ottoman subject. I had great difficulty getting permission to 
travel even to France and England. They would never give me per 
mission to go abroad to attend a Zionist meeting. 

"Baron Rothschild has implied that I cannot count on his further 
assistance if I get in trouble with the Turkish authorities. He himself 
is not enthusiastic for our Zionist cause. So again I probably shall 
have to watch the proceedings from afar." 

At dinner Zangwill was in a jovial mood and told many stories 
which Eliezer said were even more amusing than those he had nar 
rated in such books as Children of the Ghetto and The King of 
Schnoners. The room echoed and re-echoed with laughter during 
the entire meal. 

As they were going to the library for coffee, Eliezer whispered to 
his wife: 

"He s wonderful, isn t he, Bitti!" 

Hemda replied: 

"Yes, but he was so entertaining that I laughed instead of eating, 
and now I am hungry! I think, he was the only one who consumed 
a good meal!" 

Another dinner party they always remembered was at the sumptu 
ous home near Regent s Park of Herbert Bentwich, who had come 
to Jerusalem, with Zangwill. There they met a son, Norman, who 
in later years was to become British Attorney General in Palestine 
and help revise the laws under which the British would rule the 
country. But at that time Norman was a boy of fifteen and his 


Tongue of the Prophets 

interest was music, not law. He was a violinist, and with his mother 
and two sisters gave a concert for the guests after dinner. 

Mrs. Bentwich won a place in Eliezer s heart by telling how she 
had had nine children (two more were born later), and as fast as 
they were old enough to learn, she was having them study Hebrew 
under the distinguished scholar, Ephraim Ish-Kishor. 

In later years the Ben Yehudas were to see this love of Hebrew im 
planted in the Bentwich children in their youth come to fruition 
when most of them decided to emigrate to Palestine and make their 
homes there. 

At a dinner party given by Mrs. Herbert Samuel, whom they had 
once entertained in Jerusalem, the Ben Yehudas met her nephew, 
Herbert, who years later would become British High Commissioner 
of Palestine and later a viscount, but at that time he was just a 
curious youth interested in stories of their life in the Promised Land. 

The Ben Yehudas spent two months in London, and not one 
evening were they without an invitation of some sort. 

Lord Lionel Rothschild made it possible for Ben Yehuda to work 
during those two months in the British Museum, where he found 
traces of many "lost" words. 

Ben Yehuda found considerable interest on the part of the British 
in his revival of Hebrew, but hardly any in his newspaper. They 
told him they had Jewish papers printed in English and also Yiddish 
papers. What did they want with one in Hebrew? 

As the Ben Yehudas prepared to leave the British capital Eliezer 
asked his wife how, after two months, she liked London contrasted 
with Paris. 

"Very much, Eliezer! It is all so neat and orderly. It has a confi 
dence in itself which makes a visitor feel confidence also." 

"But, Bitti, it is such a cold city; cold in every way. Paris is a gay 
city, so hospitable, so easy to live in, so " 

"I still like London better, Eliezer!" 

Eliezer refused to drop the subject. 

"I have observed over here that the Jews have been swallowed 
up. They have become more British than the British; cooler, more 
reserved, more phlegmatic. 

"I have been in some of their private clubs. Do you know what 


Hemda s London 

you find inside of them? Boredom ! One gets bored to death here/ 5 
Hemda dropped the argument, deciding that it was principally a 
matter of language. In Paris Eliezer felt at home because he spoke 
fluent French and could express any thought that came to his mind. 
He could read and write English perfectly, but he was timid about 
speaking the language and had difficulty expressing himself. 
So it was "her" London and "his" Paris! 




the National Library at Paris, checking and rechecking the material 
he had obtained in London, covering thousands of additional pieces 
of paper with notes in his almost feminine handwriting. He also 
conferred with many celebrated philologists and scholars of oriental 

Hemda, meanwhile, cured of malaria, fell victim to a new con 
tagion which she would never be able to shake off for the rest of 
her life. She was finally "bitten" by Paris. Before the month was up 
she wrote to a friend: 

"I begin to love Paris, the life of the boulevards, the small twisting 
streets, the light and gay French way of saying things, the cafes and 
their habitues, the modesty of the writers, journalists, scholars, 
artists, and diplomats. 

"The Frenchwomen I now find charming. I like to watch the 
faces of those who pass by, for there is life in their smiles and the 
joy of living in their eyes," 

As the month drew to a close she made the great confession to her 

"I feel now," she admitted, "that I am like a woman in love with 



two men at the same time, one an intelligent scholar, serious-minded, 
an explorer of the depths of the soul; the other an artist, light- 
hearted, a teacher of the love of life above everything else, who 
possesses the art of always making the best of any situation." 

Eliezer smiled and took her hand. 

"Bitti, I knew this would happen. I am glad it happened. I 
would have been greatly disappointed in you if you had not caught 
the spirit of Paris as well as you did the spirit of London !" 

Before they left, Eliezer arranged for his eldest son, Ben Zion, to 
enter the Alliance Israelite school in Paris, with the idea that he 
would eventually return to Jerusalem and become a teacher of 
Hebrew in one of the schools. 

While the Ben Yehudas had been in London, Dr. Nordau had 
gone to his summer home in the country, so Eliezer went there to 
see him and summarize his own ideas for the renaissance of Israel. 

He advanced his old argument that there never could be a Jewish 
state without a common language. That was basic. A Hebrew dic 
tionary must be published as soon as possible, for how could a lan 
guage be properly taught if there were no standards of pronuncia 
tion and meaning? 

Next, plans must be made for the purchase of land from individ 
ual Arab owners, land on which new colonies could be founded. 
Baron Rothschild could not be expected to finance such projects 
indefinitely alone. 

Third, there must be a definite program of fostering amicable 
relations with the Arabs. There should be, for example, schools 
where Jewish and Arab children would study side by side and learn 
the art of living peacefully together. 

Fourth, there must be a definite program of adult education so 
the older generation already in Palestine could be enthused with the 
spirit of the new Zionist movement. 

Fifth, schoolbooks were needed in Hebrew. It was foolish to try to 
bring children up entirely on oral instruction, which was too easily 

Ben Yehuda argued that he himself, for seventeen years, had been 
working almost singlehanded on many of these projects. But now, 
with the acceleration of the Zionist movement resulting from the 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Basle congress, others must help. He wanted to get back to Jerusalem 
as quickly as possible and begin publishing his paper again, enlarg 
ing it to meet the needs of a growing Jewish population and adding 
an Arabic supplement to help cany out Point Three and to convince 
the Arabs of the advantages of a Jewish settlement of the wasteland. 

Dr. Nordau listened attentively, then said : 

"Ben Yehuda, as worthy as this program is, I must point out that 
I am only a soldier in the ranks. You shall have to see the com 
mander in chief. Already preparations are being made in Basle for 
the Second Zionist Congress. I understand why you cannot attend, 
but there is no reason why you should not go to Basle immediately 
and see Herzl, who is already there." 

Eliezer was disappointed. He had anticipated that Nordau would 
offer to help in convincing Herzl. It was with a weary voice that he 

"I shall do as you suggest. I, too, am only a soldier. I shall go to 

This was the first time either of them had ever been in Switzer 
land, but it was not a happy visit. 

At Basle they went directly to the Casino, where preparations for 
the Second Zionist Congress were already being made. When they 
asked for Herzl one of his friends said : 

"But didn t you know? Herzl left yesterday for Vienna!" 

Then, noticing how disappointed Ben Yehuda was. the man 

"Wait a few minutes. I shall be back." 

When he returned he announced he had sent a telegram to Herzl 
saying that the Ben Yehudas were on their way to Vienna to see him. 

And so, without having a chance to debate the wisdom of con 
tinuing the chase, the Ben Yehudas found themselves again on a 
train, this time heading for the Austrian capital. 

Because their funds were getting low they traveled third-class, and 
when they arrived in Vienna they were physically as well as mentally 
exhausted. They washed their faces at the depot and went out to 
look for a carriage. By the time they reached the small garden of the 



Herd home, breathing fresh clean air for a change, their spirits had 
somewhat revived. But now they received another blow. The woman 
who greeted them introduced herself as Madame Herd and said: 

"My husband left last night for the Austrian summer resort of 
Ischl for an important interview with Emperor Francis Joseph. He 
regretted exceedingly having to go, but he had no alternative. He 
told me to urge you to meet him in Ischl. You will find him at the 
Hotel of the Three Kings." 

Back at the railway station, the Ben Yehudas just missed a train 
and had to wait several hours for the next one. When they got to 
Ischl they went directly to the Hotel of the Three Kings. 

"You are looking for Herd, the man with the long beard, yes? 55 
the manager announced rather than asked. "Without a doubt you 
are the people he was expecting. He went to the station some hours 
ago to meet you, and you were not on the train. He said that if you 
eventually arrived I was to express his regrets, but he has gone back 
to Vienna and then to Basle. 5 

Hemda counted the money they had left. It was not enough, they 
decided, to finance any more of a chase, so they "submitted to fate," 
as Eliezer put it, and left Ischl for Constantinople. 

In the Turkish capital Ben Yehuda had a Herculean labor to 
perform. He had received word, just before they left Paris, that he 
would not be able to resume publication of the Deer unless he ob 
tained a new permit from the Turkish authorities. 

When they reached Constantinople, Ben Yehuda was told that if 
he sought a permit in his own name the old matter of his imprison 
ment and his "revolt against the authorities 55 would be brought up. 
That difficulty could be circumvented by applying in his wife s 

So the application was made in Hemda s name, but it was im 
mediately rejected on the ground that the request for the firman, 
as it was called, must first be filed with the Turkish authorities in 
the city where the newspaper was to be published. 

The night after they received this news Eliezer and Hemda cte- 
cided that the course of wisdom would be for her to go to Jerusalem 
and file the application, while he remained in Constantinople to 
"apply the necessary pressures. 55 But before Hemda left, something 


Tongue of the Prophets 

happened which made their first separation more difficult than they 
had anticipated. 

The strain of all the traveling, the emotional upsets, and the 
changes of climate combined to bring on the sort of attack Eliezer 
had had when he was a student in Paris. He coughed violently from 
morning until night and had serious internal hemorrhages which 
confined him to his bed. 

And at this precise time Herzl, whom they had chased all over 
Europe, came to Constantinople, but Ben Yehuda was too ill to try 
to see him. 

Ostensibly Herd came as a correspondent for his Vienna paper, 
"covering" a visit of Kaiser Wilhelm to the Sultan, but behind the 
scenes there had been months of subtle negotiations. 

Turkey at this time had an enonnous foreign debt, and Herzl 
hoped that the Sultan might be persuaded to accept some financial 
help in return for a charter permitting the Jewish colonization of Pal 
estine. With this in mind Herzl had conferred with some of the Kai 
ser s intimates and had offered the argument that the Jews would 
need a "protector," and why not Germany? 

Word finally trickled back to Herzl that the Kaiser was extremely 
interested and would try to persuade the Sultan to open negotiations 
with the Zionists. Herzl should go to Constantinople and meet the 
Kaiser there. 

At their Constantinople conference the German Emperor said he 
wanted to see Palestine for himself and would meet Herzl in Jeru 

Meanwhile Hemda Ben Yehuda had gone home. The warmest 
welcome she received, after her four-month absence, was from her 
daughter Deborah. 

"Now I am like other little girls because I have a mother again 
just like they do!" 

All Palestine was excited over news that Kaiser Wilhelm was go 
ing to pay the Holy Land a visit, but the Jews attached even more 
importance to the visit of the famous Viennese journalist, Theodor 
Herzl, president of the Zionist Organization. 

Herzl was anathema to the Turkish officials of Palestine, because 



they were convinced that somehow he was going to try to "steal" 
this piece of territory from them, but knowing that he was on speak 
ing terms with the Kaiser, they took no steps to stop him from com 

The Jews of Palestine prepared an elaborate reception for Herd, 

and the Ottoman officials could do nothing about it, for if any ques 
tions were asked, the answer was that the decorations, the spectacles, 
the triumphal arches, and the processions were, of course, in honor 
of the Kaiser. 

The Geiman monarch and the Zionist leader met, by previous ar 
rangement, at the Mikveh Israel agricultural school, where they saw 
an exhibit put on by the students. Herzl got down from his horse, 
responded to the salute of the reception committee, then approached 
the Kaiser s carriage and saluted the German monarch. Wilhelm ex 
tended his hand, a gesture of friendship in which he rarely indulged. 

Eliezer had not yet come home, and so once again he missed 
meeting Herzl. Hemda was prevented from attending any of the re 
ceptions because she was now confined to her bed awaiting the birth 
of her fourth child, so she sent Ben Zion to greet Herd and to wel 
come him to Israel in the name of the Ben Yehuda family and to in 
vite him to call on hen 

Ben Zion, then just sixteen, introduced himself as "Ben Zion ben 
Ben Yehuda." 

Herd received him with cordiality and laughingly called him 
the Triple Ben." He sent word back by the boy that he would be 
charmed to call on Mrs. Ben Yehuda. 

When Hemda received the message she suddenly wondered 
whether she had made a mistake. She had heard that Ottoman de 
tectives were checking up on all of HerzPs movements. If he came 
to the Ben Yehuda home, a search of the house would undoubtedly 
be made later. So she left her bed long enough to ransack Eliezer s 
study and burn any letters or papers which might, to suspicious 
Turkish officials, seem to have a nationalistic tone. 

But Herd never came. Friends convinced him that such a visit 
might result in Ben Yehuda s being imprisoned again. Thus, once 
more, direct contact between the Zionist leader and either Ben Ye 
huda or his wife was postponed. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

When Hemda applied for the newspaper permit she was first told 
it was out of the question. 

"A woman editor? Unheard of!" 

She cited the precedent of a woman: newspaper owner in Con 
stantinople. Then they asked her age. 


The answer was that no permit could be issued to anyone under 

"If I could grow four years older in a hurry, would that be all 
right?" she asked, winking. 

The Turkish official, suddenly showing a sense of humor, replied 
that if she could bring papers proving such an age her application 
would be forwarded to Constantinople. 

Through the conniving of friends Hemda obtained the necessary 
documents and one night wrote Eliezer a letter telling him the appli 
cation finally was on its way. Jokingly she added : 

"In connection with the application, I today became thirty years 

Eliezer absent-mindedly replied:; 

"You say you have just had your thirtieth birthday. I thought that 
you were much younger." 

Weeks went by, and every time Ben Yehuda called at government 
offices he was told the application from Jerusalem had not yet ar 
rived, but friends advised him that someone was simply waiting for 
a bribe. 

After Ben Yehuda had raised the necessary money and paid all 
the proper officials, the application suddenly was found. Now, he 
was told, there would be a delay while it was given consideration. 

Ben Yehuda spent eight unhappy months in Constantinople. Dur 
ing that time he interviewed influential Turks, trying to ascertain 
the official reaction to Herd s attempt to "buy" Palestine, He was 
told from every source that Herzl was wasting his time. 

In a letter dated January 21,1 899, he wrote to Hemda : 

"The more I think over the state of affairs, the more clear it be 
comes that there is hardly any hope for us to settle now in the land 
of our fathers. I have had an interview with Oscar Straus, an out 
standing Jew who is Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipoten- 



tiary from Washington to Constantinople, He says the Turkish gov 
ernment is determined not to permit the Jews the foundation of any 
colony and, in general, not to allow us to increase our numbers in the 
country. I am also told that Russia and France are backing up 
Turkey in this resolution. . . . 

"I have already written Herd about this state of affairs," 


Two Bearded Crusaders 


birth to her fourth child. She sent her husband a telegram tell 
ing him he was the father of a girl with intelligent dark eyes and 
black hair; they were both quite well; she suggested they name the 
child Ada. 

The telegram reached Eliezer in Vienna. After sitting impatiently 
in Constantinople for eight months, ill most of the time, he had sud 
denly decided it was imperative to see Herzl, even if he had to chase 
him halfway across Europe again. It was important, he felt, that 
they discuss all he had learned in the Turkish capital. 

He had tried by letter to point out to Herzl that his idea of "buy 
ing" Jewish colonization rights was an idle dream. 

The reply he received from Herzl had read merely: 

"We are trying to arrange it." 

Ben Yehuda admired Herzl and had stoutly defended him since 
he had become a champion of Zionism, but now he feared that 
Herzl was being blind and deaf as well. 

So Eliezer Ben Yehuda took the Orient Express to Vienna, and 
there the two men finally met; two men of letters, two men burning 


Two Bearded Crusaders 

Arith Zionist zeal; two bearded journalists, and yet unlike in so many 
)ther ways. 

In his own diary Herzl told of the meeting in one sentence: 

"There came to me a young enthusiast, Ben Yehuda." 

The "young enthusiast," who was two years older than Herzl, 
started out by congratulating his host and saying that without doubt 
listory would write that the state of Israel acually was created by the 
First Zionist Congress, when Jews publicly declared their wish to re 
establish themselves in their own ancient land. 

"But why, Herzl, did you say e it will come to pass in five or fifty 
fears ?" 

Herzl smiled and explained that during the next five years, in his 
opinion, one of the great powers would take possession of Palestine 
and give the land to the Jews for their own national state. (A pre 
diction not borne out by subsequent events.) 

"Then why fifty years?" 

Herzl went on that if his first prediction did not materially^, then 
it would take fifty years for Turkey to collapse. (A prediction which 
was about thirty years off in its timing.) Then, he added, the Otto 
man Empire would be divided up and the Jews would get Palestine 
as their share. In either case, he concluded, the Jews should now be 
preparing, on their own soil, to take advantage of whatever situation 

"I heartily agree!" Ben Yehuda declared intently. "But if that is 
your belief, then political Zionism should be supporting the pioneer 
ing movement we have already begun in Palestine." 

Herzl half evaded by answering that the important problem at 
this time was political rights. 

Ben Yehuda then told of his conversation with the American 
Minister and said all his talks in Constantinople buttressed his opin 
ion that the Ottoman Empire would never sell the Jews any colo 
nization rights in Palestine. 

"If you concentrate all the efforts of Zionism on raising money 
for that purpose," Ben Yehuda argued, "and neglect the tender roots 
we have already planted, not only will our efforts bear no fruit, but 
practical Zionism will die !" 

Herzl disagreed. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Ben Yehuda then presented, in even greater detail than he had to 
Dr. Nordau, his own five-point program. As for the creation of a 
national language, Herzl said : 

"Let the Jews go to Palestine and live there for a few generations. 
After that they will decide themselves what language they wish to 

"But if. there is no language ready for them, if there is no modern 
Hebrew, then what language could they possibly speak?" Ben Ye 
huda asked, spreading his hands out in an empty gesture. 

As for better relations with the Arabs, Herzl apparently con 
sidered Jewish-Arab relations relatively unimportant at this stage in 
Jewish history. He also showed little enthusiasm for Ben Yehuda s 
ideas about the political education of those Jews already in Palestine. 

The talk was without a single positive result. Herzl ended it by 
saying that he still hoped to win the Sultan over to the colonization 
idea and in the meantime was going to dedicate his efforts to raising 
the money to solve Turkey s national indebtedness, which he felt was 
a bribe the Sultan would not be able to resist. 

From Vienna, Ben Yehuda went to Paris, hoping to make a new 
impression on Herzl s chief lieutenant, but that meeting was also 
futile. Dr. Nordau seemed more sympathetic, but again he had the 
I-am-only-a-soldier attitude. 

From Paris, Hemda received the blackest letter Eliezer had ever 
written to her: 

"The situation is desperate. Herzl is convinced he will succeed in 
buying the charter from the Turks and will not think or talk of any 
thing else. He has no interest in either the paper or the dictionary. 
Nordau is of no help. We will not get support from anyone. We are 
indeed an unfortunate people." 

As Hemda read the letter she was lying in bed nursing her new 
born baby. With the letter had come a clipping from a Vienna pa 
per. She unfolded it and spread it out on the bed. It was a cartoon 
showing Herzl and Ben Yehuda in conference. She studied the face 
of her husband, then suddenly put the baby down on the bed and 
burst into tears. The look of suffering and despair on Ben Yehuda s 
face told better than a thousand words might have done what the 
result of their conference had been. 


Two Bearded Crusaders 

Eliezer Ben Yehuda returned to "his" Jerusalem a disillusioned 
man with a heart full of sorrow. His shoulders were more stooped 
than usual, his eyes lacked any trace of sparkle. It was obvious that 
he had neither slept nor eaten properly in a long time. 

But Hemda had a surprise for him which she hoped would revive 
his spirits. 

"You must treat me with great respect now, Eliezer," she said 
after they had greeted each other, "for I am the second woman in 
history ever to be given a permit by the Ottoman Empire to run a 

It worked ! 

Ben Yehuda, who had labored so long in Constantinople for the 
firman, had bribed so many officials, had pulled so many strings, for 
got for the moment his defeats in Vienna and Paris. 

"It is difficult to believe, Bitti! After eighteen years, at last we 
have the right to a paper of our own ! We must start work at once ! 
I wonder how quickly we can get out the first issue/ 

As he talked he was on the way to his study. Hemda had to re 
mind him that he had still not greeted all the members of his family; 
that he had not yet met his own youngest child ; that he still had on 
his hat and coat, and that dinner was waiting. 

In applying for the permit they had used the name Hashkafah 
(The Review) , hoping that such an innocuous title would convince 
the Turks that the paper would not have a subversive political com 

But whatever the name of the paper was to be, it was being 
awaited eagerly by the former readers of the Deer. Much had hap 
pened lately. Another Zionist congress had met. Hostilities had 
broken out between the British and the Boers of South Africa. Here 
in Palestine the followers of Ahad Haam, the Russian intellectual 
who had read Pines out of his secret society, were conducting a re 
lentless campaign against the political Zionism of Herd and what 
they called "the Basle crowd." Also, there was a new campaign un 
der way for the elevation of the liberal Sephardic rabbi, Jacob Mdr, 
to the post of Hacham Bashi. 

After a full year without the Deer, the Jews of Palestine were hun 
gry for news and opinions. Besides, many had paid-up subscriptions 


Tongue of the Prophets 

to the Deer and they wanted a paper every week or their money 

The second day after Ben Yehuda s return his wife had another 
surprise for him. 

"You know, Eliezer, how much you have talked about putting out 
supplements to the paper in various languages? I have an Ar;ab 
writer who will edit our Arabic supplement. You, of course, can do 
the German one yourself. And for the French supplement . . . 

"In your absence I saw a great deal of a wonderful young French 
couple, the Due Quercis. They have been most kind. I told them so 
much about you that they talk of you almost in religious whispers ! 
They are both writers, Eliezer; brilliant writers! They have agreed 
to edit the French section, and without pay, Eliezer !" 

The first issue of the Review gave the Jews of Palestine enough 
controversial material to keep them arguing for weeks. Ben Yehuda 
took bold sides on every one of the questions of the day. 

He threw his paper behind Rabbi Meir again, thus antagonizing 
the reactionaries. 

He heaped scorn and denunciation on the followers of Ahad 
Haam and stoutly defended the organized Zionists, despite the re 
buffs he had had from Herzl himself. He wrote that in his opinion 
Ahad Haam wished to make Palestine a spiritual rather than a po 
litical center, which would mean only a small community of Jews, 
content with their lot, a high-class ghetto. 

It was difficult to take a stand on the Boer War because the South 
Africans were fighting for their freedom, and instinctively Ben Ye 
huda was on the side of any people trying to get out from under a 
yoke. But in this case Ben Yehuda felt that the future of Israel was 
more important than any other considerations. He had evidence that 
France and Russia were both taking anti-Zionist positions. In this 
situation England was the one great hope. Therefore, it was to the 
Jews interest to be on England s side, so the Review came out for 

Jerusalem buzzed like an overcrowded beehive with excited talk 
after the first issue appeared. It was the old story all over again. Ben 
Yehuda was denounced and vilified; defended and eulogized. There 


Two Bearded Crusaders 

were few neutrals. But he had made more enemies than new friends. 
There were few who agreed with his stand on all the big controver 
sies. If they saw eye to eye with him on the Boer War, they were in 
violent disagreement on the Rabbi Meir controversy. If they ap 
proved of the Revieztfs stand on those questions, they disapproved of 

But the greatest conflict developed within the office of the Review 

Ben Yehuda paced his study in great agitation when he read the 
French supplement and found that the Due Quercis had supported 
the Boers. He called them in and argued. A paper must have a 
policy. One page cannot contradict another. 

But his French editors were adamant. They were socialists. They 
were on the side of the Boers because these people were fighting for 
their independence. How could Ben Yehuda, a Jew, possibly oppose 
other people struggling for freedom? 

Later, when the Russo-Japanese War began, the editor and his 
assistants split again, Ben Yehuda taking the side of the Japanese be 
cause of his hatred of the evils perpetrated by the czarist regime. The 
French section supported Russia. The Due Quercis explained that 
they had a hope that out of Russia someday would come a great so 
cialist uprising which would change the history of all the world and 
that as a result all oppressed peoples, including Jews, would benefit. 

The feud with the Due Quercis was a continuous one. Ben Ye 
huda often accused the French couple of falsifying the meaning of 
dispatches published in the French supplement, giving them the op 
posite meaning they had in the Hebrew part of the paper. The Due 
Quercis rebutted by saying that Ben Yehuda exaggerated British vic 
tories and minimized the gains of the Boers. 

When Ben Yehuda for a second time lost his fight to elevate 
Rabbi Jacob Meir to the post of Hacham Bashi, the Due Quercis 

"I told you so! 53 

It was seven years before Rabbi Meir obtained that post, but even 
then the victory was Pyrrhic, for the Sultan refused to ratify Rabbi 
Meir because of his "too advanced ideas. 33 

This fight was like so many in which Ben Yehuda engaged; con- 


Tongue of the Prophets 

stant defeats, which the slow inevitable progress of events finally 
turned into victories. Rabbi Meir, just before Ben Yehuda s death, 
finally did become Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic Jews of Palestine. 

Despite the acrimony of the debates with the Due Quercis, they 
and the Ben Yehudas became deep friends. There would be hours of 
argument, then they would eat and drink together, or sit by a fire 
and enjoy pleasant social intercourse, discussing culture, literature, 
and the arts. Often instructors from the schools and young Jews in 
terested in progressive thought would join the circle. The Ben Ye 
huda home was a meeting place for those unafraid of the clash of 

It was the progress of Hebrew in the schools which gave Ben Ye 
huda the most encouragement in this period. Although Hebrew was 
still not the "official" language of any one school, more and more 
courses in Hebrew were being given; more and more children were 
speaking the language in the streets; more and more pupils from the 
villages were coming to Jerusalem to attend classes in schools infi 
nitely more advanced than the old Talmudic institutions. 

When Ben Yehuda, not long after his return from abroad, called 
Ben Zion to him and told the boy he was to be sent to Paris to enter 
the Alliance s Ecole Normale, the child became defiant. 

"I prefer," he said boldly, "to be a shoemaker or blacksmith here 
in our own land than to study in Paris. I refuse to go!" 

Ben Yehuda knew how closely friends and enemies alike had been 
watching Ben Zion since the day of his birth. If this "first Hebrew 
child" became a failure it would hurt his own cause more than any 
thing else. He tried to explain this to the boy, adding: 

"With you, Ben Zion, I started a great experiment. I beg you to 
allow me to cany it to its conclusion !" 

So reluctantly Ben Zion went to Paris. 

Some time later Dr. Nordau wrote to the father: 

"Your son tells me that as soon as he feels he has learned enough 
he is going back to Jerusalem to become a journalist. Here is the 
curse of our people, that a boy of extraordinary talents like your son 
must return to a country where there are no real newspapers and 
np readers!" 

"I hope the day will come," Ben Yehuda replied, "when our sons 


Two Bearded Crusaders 

will no longer have to leave the land of their birth to receive the edu 
cation they need. As for our not having newspapers and readers, 
why do you not come to Israel and find out the truth about us your 

Ben Yehuda added that if Nordau came he would be treated Eke 
a king. But Nordau never accepted the invitation. Today his bones 
rest in Israel, but while alive he never visited the country for which 
he did so much work. 

With Ben Zion gone, the father made Deborah his favorite child. 
He called her the "Happy Little Prophetess/ but in her babyhood 
die herself had chosen the nickname "Dola," which was what every 
one else called her. She was now almost seven and had begun to read 
Hebrew as well as to speak the language fluently. 

When Ada, the youngest, was less that two yeare old, Hemda gave 
birth to her fifth child, Eliezer s tenth, who was named Shlomit after 
one of Deborah s daughters who had died. Soon after that Deborah, 
Ehud, and Ada were all stricken with typhoid fever. Then the 
mother caught it too. Finally the newborn baby also became ill. 

The home became a hospital. Barricades were put up in the street 
covered with posters announcing a stringent quarantine. Doctors 
came and went. Word soon spread through Jerusalem that there 
was no chance of saving the mother s life, although some of the 
children might recover. 

Ben Yehuda s adversaries said again what they had said each time 
calamity came: this affliction was heaven-sent, his retribution be 
cause he was a heretic and a rebel 

But one by one the typhoid victims all recovered. When the siege 
was over and the barricades and posters removed, the Box Yehuda 
home seemed like a battlefield just after the shooting has stopped. 
Eliezer was a haggard skeleton. The other members of the family 
showed the physical scars of what they had been through. But they 
had all lived. The Review had lived too. Ben Yehuda had not failed 
to put out a single issue on time. Now, perhaps, God willing, he 
could settle down and try to re-establish life as it had been before the 

But real tragedy stalked through the doors of the house less than 
six months later. Deborah, called Dola, caught pneumonia. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

From the start of her illness the child seemed to know she was go 
ing to die. 

Once, when Hemda laid a cool hand on the hot small forehead, 
Dola whimperingly said: 

"Mother, I never again shall see the stars ! I never again shall see 
the blue sky!" 

Then one early evening, as she lay clutching a doll to her cheek, 
she suddenly cried out with fright: 

"Mother, what is the matter? Mother, I do not see you ! I do not 
see you !" 

Her body writhed for an instant in agony. Then death came and 
ended the suffering. 

Due Querci and his wife went out into the garden, picked an 
armload of flowers, and laid them lovingly over the body of the 
dead child, unaware, not being Jews, of tie Orthodox attitude to 
ward flowers and the dead* 

Eliezer was more bowed down with grief than he had ever been. 
He had centered his hopes on Ben Zion, but his deepest affection 
had been for Deborah. 

When the undertakers arrived and were shown into the death 
chamber, the "spectacle/ as they called it, revolted them. This was 
sacrilege ! Did not the Ben Yehudas know that it was contamination 
of the dead to have flowers anywhere near the body? Now the sanc 
tity of burial could not be accorded the child. 

Ben Yehuda stood it as long as he could. He was slow to wrath, 
but finally he exploded: 

"Be silent in the presence of my daughter! Silent, I tell you!" 

The undertakers suddenly stopped their chattering. 

"Now leave quickly! Tell whoever wishes to know that I shall 
bury my own child in my own garden with my own hands. That is 
how much respect I have for you and your customs I" 

Then, stumbling out into the garden, he found a spade and furi 
ously started to dig. 

Meanwhile the Due Quercis promised the undertakers that they 
would put the "scandal" on the front page of every newspaper in 
Europe unless they relented. So the undertakers held a whispered 


Two Bearded Crusaders 

conference and at last agreed that if someone would remove the 
flowers they would take the body. 

Ben Yehuda and Due Querci accompanied Deborah, called Dola, 
to her last resting" place. 

A heavy stone, according to ancient custom, was placed upon her 
breast. As this was being done Ben Yehuda gave a sharp cry of inner 
torture and shouted: 

"Why? Why so large a stone?" 


Three Iron Chests 


Yehuda said to his wife: 

"Bitti, do you realize it was just 20 years ago this month that I 
arrived in Jerusalem?" 

In twenty years he had fathered ten children. Five had died, but 
five still lived* Two of them spoke fluently the language he had spent 
so much of these twenty years trying to bring back to life. More im 
portant, the streets of Jerusalem, the market places, the villages scat 
tered over the desert were thronged with other Jews who spoke this 
same revived language. 

Through all the vicissitudes and in face of all the opposition, he 
had managed to keep alive a real Hebrew newspaper which could 
help popularize the words he kept adding to the language for an 
only half-receptive public. 

Today there was a Hebrew literature. True, most of the books 
which came out in the new language were translations, but the day 
was approaching when men would write books directly in Hebrew. 

There was already an amateur dramatic group which gave plays 
in Hebrew, and this might be the forerunner of a real Hebrew 


Three Iron Chests 

Now it was no longer unusual for lectures and speeches to be de 
livered in Hebrew. 

Progress had certainly been made in these twenty years. But on 
the debit side of the ledger one must make entries too. 

There was no uniformity to Hebrew as one heard it spoken in the 
streets. One man pronounced a word this way, his neighbor or even 
his wife pronounced it some other way. 

And their vocabularies were still too limited. The language was 
feeble in many respects, and inadequate. 

As for the Hebrew books which were published, their style was 
heavy and ponderous, lacking in elasticity. Often the sense was un 
clear because different people had different ideas about the mean 

But, Ben Yehuda kept telling himself, when his dictionary finally 
came out all these problems would disappear. The dictionary would 
be a stimulus in many ways. Most important of all, it would help 
to accelerate the development of the Jewish state. 

The only celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Ben Yehuda s 
arrival in Jerusalem was this little self-summation, but it served a 
purpose. That day Ben Yehuda went back into his study, took a red 
pencil, and drew heavy lines under the words of the motto which 
hung on the wall over his desk: 



Then he returned to his scholarly labors with a new determina 
tion. It must not take another twenty years to finish the task! 

So he went back to a schedule of working seventeen or eighteen 
hours a day. He was older now and grew tired more easily, but he 
found that if he worked for one or two hours standing up at his 
bookkeeper-type desk and then one or two hours sitting down he 
could keep going long into the night without a break. 

In these twenty years he had read through thousands of volumes; 
the works of many forgotten poets and writers of little fame. He had 
even perused countless private manuscripts. 

He had had to become a master not only of written English, 


Tongue of the Prophets 

French, German, Russian, and Hebrew itself, but also of the "sister 
languages" of Arabic, Coptic, Assyrian, Aramaic, and Ethiopian. 

Work of this sort required concentration. He needed peace, soli 
tude, and quiet. Yet Ben Yehuda rarely in these twenty years had 
had any peace, solitude, and quiet. 

It was difficult to go from a room in which your favorite child 
had just died back to a roomful of dead words and try to bring some 
of them back to life. 

It was difficult for a man who, these twenty years, had been try 
ing to fight off the ravages of what medical science then called an 
incurable disease to work seventeen or eighteen hours a day, whether 
he stood or sat. 

It was difficult to keep the mind on scholarly matters when the 
body announced that it was not being properly fed. 

Yet Ben Yehuda had, there in his study, tens of thousands of file 
cards covered with his own fine handwriting and a mountain of odd 
pieces of paper to prove that he had succeeded, during these two 
decades, in rising above temporal distractions. 

There were some who wondered why it was taking Ben Yehuda 
so long to put out his dictionary. If they had understood something 
about his method they might not have been so perplexed and so im 

Ben Yehuda s self-imposed task was to take a language which had 
not been commonly spoken for two thousand years and popularize it 
for modern usage, and at the same time to make it adequate for the 
needs of a complex group of people. It must be made sufficient for 
intellectuals as well as tillers of the soil. It must be flexible enough 
for artists, scientists, engineers, and for literary people who wanted 
all the little nuances and shadings of expression. It must be adequate 
for ordering groceries, shouting at cattle, and making love. 

But Ben Yehuda wanted to keep Hebrew pure. He wanted to help 
make modern Hebrew a consistent and beautiful language, without 
harsh sounds; without words which grated on the ear because they 
were inconsistent with the ancient music of the language. 

That was the basic theory on which he worked. 

In 1 88 1, the year he began his philological labors, Jews were us 
ing Hebrew principally as a language in which to pray. It had been 


Three Iron Chests 

kept alive in the Talmudic schools where students were taught to 
read ancient Hebrew and argue over the meanings of obscure pas 
sages in books on biblical law. 

To make this musty language adequate for common usage it was 
necessary to add thousands of words to the vocabulary. It would 
have been simple for Ben Yehuda or anyone else, when a word was 
needed, to steal it bodily from some other language. But this would 
have violated his own rule about keeping Hebrew pure. This would 
have been "bastardization," and bastardization was exactly what 
Ben Yehuda was trying to avoid. 

His first task, therefore, when he was looking for a combination 
of letters to express a certain object, concept, or idea, was to go back 
and see if perhaps the word had once existed in Hebrew and had 
been in common usage but had disappeared from the language. 

Such searches required infinite patience. Ben Yehuda would comb 
the pages of hundreds of books, sometimes feeling as if he were a 
little man with a magnifying glass looking on a great sandy beach for 
something the size of an ant egg. But often these searches were re 
warding and he would return with exactly the right word, pure and 
consistent, all ready to be put back into the common vocabulary. 

When he found such a word Ben Yehuda would handle his dis 
covery as tenderly as if it were some priceless relic of ancient times. 

Sometimes Ben Yehuda would find words almost by accident. 
While he was working in the British Museum he came upon some 
yellowed pieces of parchment and on them discovered a number of 
words which had been "lost" for hundreds of years and which he 
himself had given up any hope of finding. On that occasion he was 
as excited as, years later, the archaeologists would be when they sud 
denly uncovered the ancient wealth of King Tutankhamen. 

Hebrew, when it ceased being a spoken language, ceased increas 
ing its vocabulary. That meant there would be no Hebrew word for 
any idea, object, or conception which had evolved, been created, or 
been invented in the past two thousand years. In such cases Ben 
Yehuda had a more difficult problem. 

He then would go to the "sister languages. 55 If one of them "had 
a word for it," he could "borrow" it and graft it onto Hebrew. This 
would not violate his own rule against bastardization, because Ar~ 


Tongue of the Prophets 

able, Assyrian, Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Coptic were languages 
akin to Hebrew in sound and form. 

Arabic provided many of the words he needed, because it was the 
only Semitic language which had remained alive, vigorous, and in 
current usage down through the ages. But here he was handicapped 
by the fact that the Arabs, for so many centuries, had led a primi 
tive life far removed from modern civilization. As a result, they had 
retained in their vocabulary only the words which a simple people 
needs. So often even Arabic was of little help, and then the task of 
word-birth became even more difficult. 

One of Ben Yehuda s constant and almost fruitless searches, as he 
went from city to city and from library to library, was for some trace 
of the ancient Canaanite and Moabite languages. They had been 
closer to Hebrew than any other, and Ben Yehuda was certain that 
in them he would be able to find thousands of "lost words." But in 
ancient times the Canaanite and Moabite languages had died com 
pletely, leaving little trace of their once healthy existence. 

If the word he wanted did not exist in any Semitic language, and 
if he could find no trace of its ever having existed, then Ben Yehuda 
would have to do a job of actual word creating. But here again he 
would never just put together a combination of sounds which were 
pleasing to the ear. Instead he would first look for a Hebrew base, 
and from that base would evolve the word. 

For example, as he had once pointed out to his wife, there was no 
real Hebrew word for "dictionary." The expression which people 
had been using as a substitute was sefer millim > which merely meant 
"book of words." So Ben Yehuda, failing to find an adequate word 
in ancient Hebrew books or in sister languages, took as a base the 
Hebrew word nullah ("word") and from it created millon, which 
he offered as one of his first contributions to the new language. To 
day when Jews speak of a dictionary they use this Ben Yehuda word. 

Another example was the need of a word for "journal" or "news 
paper." Lacking such a word, Hebrew-speaking people were using 
the expression michtav-et, which literally meant "a letter of the 
time." Ben Yehuda, as a journalist himself, decided that that was 
clumsy ; they needed a more succinct way of saying it. So he took the 
Hebrew word for "time" and, improvising a bit, came from his study 


Three Iron Chests 

with the new word itton, which quickly won popular acceptance. 

Although a pacifist, Ben Yehuda was bothered that there was no 
real Hebrew word for "soldier." The closest was ish-tsavah, "man of 
the army." So he manufactured hayd and even gave it a feminine 
form, hayellet, which would come in handy half a century later 
when an Israeli army was formed with girls fighting alongside men 
for the preservation of their new Jewish state. 

Sometimes a word which Ben Yehuda had created from a purely 
Hebrew base turned out to resemble its European equivalent, and 
some people surmised he had stolen the word from one of the Euro 
pean languages. 

For example, in most ancient languages there had been no word 
for a machine which flies through the air. When such a machine 
was finally invented, English-speaking people decided to call it an 
airplane. The French named it an avion. Ben Yehuda took the base 
aveer (Hebrew for "air") and added on. So aveeron is an example 
of a purely Hebrew word which appears as if it had been stolen, be 
cause it sounds a little like the English word and very much like its 
French equivalent. 

In his research Ben Yehuda often found pure Hebrew words 
which had been taken bodily into Western languages. "Shibboleth" 
was an example of one which English-speaking people had stolen. 
In Hebrew it meant "ear of grain." There is a curious story of how 
it came to be used in English for "password." 

In ancient times the Gileadites were fighting the Ephraimites. 
One night the Ephraimites tried to infiltrate the lines of the enemy 
disguised as Gileadites, but a suspicious sentry tested them by requir 
ing their leader to pronounce the Hebrew word for "ear of grain." 

"Sibboleth," the Ephraimite said, omitting the h sound from the 
first syllable, as was the Ephraimite custom. 

Thus the enemy soldiers were identified as Ephraimites. Thus the 
Gileadites avoided defeat. Thus "shibboleth" came into use, even in 
English, to mean "password" instead of "ear of grain." 

Whenever he returned from working in a library somewhere, Ben 
Yehuda would copy his notes onto separate filing cards. There was a 
card for each word, 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Anochiuth, the Hebrew word for "egoism," had been difficult to 
trace, but finally, in old volumes somewhere, he found some ex 
amples of its early use and had copied his findings onto the master 
card. But now the master card had been lost. This created a major 
crisis. Ben Yehuda had no idea in what books, in what libraries, in 
what distant cities he had found the traces of "egoism." Without the 
card how could he ever do justice to "egoism" in his dictionary? If 
he must start the research all over again, where would he com 
mence? Was it in Moscow, or Constantinople, or Paris, or London 
that he had found the word quite by chance? 

After the entire family had searched without success for the card, 
Ben Yehuda wrote a pathetic letter to the Hungarian scholar, Wil- 
hdm Bacher, which Professor Bacher mentioned in a tribute to Ben 
Yehuda many years after his death. In the letter the unhappy lexi 
cographer wrote : 

"I am so sorry, but I have not the possibility to reread all the 
books to find this word again. This is why I ask you, very esteemed 
sir, whether you possess any notes showing where this word anochi- 
uth, with its meaning of egoism, is first mentioned. Please let me 
know about it and I shall be most grateful." 

Professor Bacher fortunately was able to supply some clues to the 
missing word and the crisis ended. 

Having revived or created a word, or having borrowed it from a 
sister language, Ben Yehuda s next task was to introduce it to a new 
generation of Hebrew-speaking people in need of just that word to 
fill a gap in their vocabularies. But he soon found that people are 
basically conservative, slow to change, reluctant to accept something 
new and better in place of the old and shabby but familiar. 

His newspaper was his principal vehicle of introduction. Each 
week s new words were incorporated in articles on agriculture, litera 
ture, education and the arts, and in the children s corner. 

Immediately they became the subjects of stormy debates. The 
critics referred sarcastically to "Ben Yehuda s word factory." His 
friends called it his "language laboratory." 

The more enterprising schoolteachers looked forward to the en 
largement of the Hebrew language; lazy ones fought it, for it meant 


Three Iron Chests 

that unless they were alert and kept up with the new words them 
selves, their pupils might embarrass them by using words which they 
themselves did not know. 

Having launched a word through the newspaper, Ben Yehuda 
then considered that it was up to the public to accept or reject it. 

There were those who, in Ben Yehuda s lifetime, accused him of 
being arbitrary and asked why this one man should have the power 
to decide what words they should use in speaking or writing. 

The answer he always gave was that he was merely the excavator. 
He dug out a word and put it on display; if they were pleased with 
it and felt a need for it, the word was there for them to use. If they 
rejected it, the word died a-borning. It was pure democracy. The 
final decision, regardless of what Ben Yehuda might say or do, was 
up to the mass of the people. 

However, it was natural that Ben Yehuda, having played the role 
of midwife, did everything he could to win acceptance of his "baby." 
The paper always remained his most effective instrument of propa 
ganda. But there was also his own large family. 

Each word, as it came from the "factory," was given to Hemda 
and the children, with instructions to get to work with it. This meant 
they were to sprinkle it liberally through their conversations, and if 
the word were ever questioned they were to explain its meaning. 

"The army," as the family was called, often was the deciding fac 
tor in getting a word accepted. 

There were those people in Palestine who vied with each other in 
trying to get the new words as fast as they came out and using them 
first, just as a woman in Paris or New York might try to be the first 
to have a hat or gown in the latest style. There was a certain amount 
of snob appeal about being the first with the latest word. 

But there were others who went to the opposite extreme and built 
up a sales resistance to Ben Yehuda s creations, which they said were 
sacrilegious. The language without these improvisations had been 
good enough for the prophets; it was good enough for them. 

Generally the Ben Yehuda "army" won its word battles, and most 
of the father s creations or discoveries were accepted, but some few 
words were so completely rejected that as years went by the only 
people who ever used them were the lexicographer himself and 


Tongue of the Prophets 

members of his own family. One such word was the one he intro 
duced for "tomato." The common word already in use was agbanit, 
from a root which meant "to love sensuously." Ben Yehuda felt that 
a better word was needed, so he went back to colloquial Arabic and 
coined the word badurah. 

After it had been announced in the paper, "the army" received its 
marching orders. Henceforth, if any Ben Yehuda went into a shop to 
purchase this vegetable, he was to ask for a badurah, and if the shop 
keeper seemed perplexed, he was to be given a little lesson in modern 
Hebrew and was to be introduced formally to badurah. 

Such tactics generally succeeded, but after many years of prose 
lytizing, the only shoppers in Jerusalem who ever called a tomato a 
badurah were members of the Ben Yehuda family. 

Then there was the story about the most expensive word in the 
Hebrew language. 

A friend in London, knowing of Ben Yehuda s need of financial 
help with his dictionary, approached a wealthy English Jew, ex 
plained the project, stressed how Ben Yehuda was bringing the lan 
guage up to date, filling it with practical, modern words, and then 
asked for a contribution. 

The wealthy Englishman, who was greatly interested in sports, 
quickly replied: 

"If what you say is true I will make out a sizable check for this, 
man. But to prove it, you must telegraph him at once and ask if he 
has a Hebrew noun for sport, 3 and if so, to telegraph it back to you." 

When the telegram arrived in Jerusalem, Eliezer read it, then 
shook his head. 

"That is one of the many words which is not ready yet!" 

Hemda was impatient with him. 

"Eliezer, you cannot allow one little word to stand in the way of 
financial assistance, which we need so badly. If you don t have a 
word, create one quickly so we can telegraph it to him today!" 

But Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the scholar, would not be hurried. He 
still had additional research to do in this field. 

It was years before he finally announced that the Hebrew noun 
for "sport" would be mil ab, based on an Arabic root meaning "to 


Three Iron Chests 

Knowing that the Englishman s financial assistance had been lost 
because mil ab had not been ready earlier, the Ben Yehuda family 
always referred to it as "the most expensive word in our lan 

Then there was the story of the day one of the Ben Yehuda 
daughters came home from school and resolutely announced she was 
not going back to the gymnasia any more. Her parents were dis 
tressed. Why not? 

"Because you tell us that we must speak only Hebrew, yet you 
send us to the gymnasia! Why must we call a school by a Russian 
name? Why can t we have a Hebrew word instead of gymnasia? 
When Father gives it a Hebrew name I shall go back to whatever he 
calls it!" 

In that case, fortunately for the education of the child, Father was 
ready. He had already decided on midrashah, which was based on 
an Arabic root. And so his small daughter went back to school and 
announced to her fellow students that they might be attending a 
gymnasia, but she was different; she was attending a midrashah! 

But this was another word the people refused to accept, and so for 
years even Hebrew-speaking Jews in Palestine continued to send 
their children to the gymnasia; only the Ben Yehuda young went to 
a midrashah. 

One of Ben Yehuda s dreams was that someday there would be a 
great Hebrew university, preferably in Jerusalem, of course, which 
would become the intellectual center of the new Israel, and that in 
it there would be incorporated a body of language scholars similar 
to the French Academy which would pass on all linguistic matters 
and keep the language pure and uncorrupted, yet still permit it to be 

In the meantime some substitute must be created; some board or 
body to say "yes" and "no." 

Accordingly, soon after he began work on the dictionary Ben Ye 
huda founded what was called in Hebrew Vaad Hdashon, an Acad 
emy of the Language. This was to be the supreme tribunal to pass on 
words and settle disputes which might arise as the result of philo 
logical rivalries. 

However, few men could be found to serve on such a board who 


Tongue of the Prophets 

had the crusading zeal of Eliezer Ben Yehuda. One of those finally 
chosen was partially blind. A second was totally blind. A third liked 
to make speeches. A fourth vociferously opposed everything the ma 
jority favored. 

Whenever a meeting was called, a number of the members would 
appear one or even two hours late. Some would send excuses, saying 
that the day was too hot or that they feared to go out in the rain. If 
the meeting were at night there were always those who worried 
about breaking a leg in the dark streets. Others in cold weather 
refused to attend unless they were guaranteed a heated meeting 

Ben Yehuda tried to appease them all. Often when he called a 
meeting, impatient to lay before the council a number of new words 
that were ready, he would send the members a message in advance 
that hot tea would be served, hoping thus to bribe them into attend 
ing. If the meeting were to be at night he would tell the reluctant 
ones that if they came he would see that they were accompanied 
back to their homes by his own Yemenite watchman, with a lantern 
to light their path. 

Protests began to come from Jaffa. Why should this council be 
composed of the learned men of just Jerusalem? Why should Jaffa 
not also have some representation? Did Jerusalem think it had a 
monopoly on brains? If Jaffa were not given recognition she would 
set up a rival council ! 

To avoid the confusions which would have resulted from the cre 
ation of a second council, it was decided that alternate meetings 
would be held in Jaffa. 

Then protests came from the settlements. Why was Rishon Le 
Zion being ignored? And how about Petach Tikvah? It took great 
patience to appease everyone. 

Two of the most helpful members of the council were Dr. David 
Yellin and Joseph Meyouhas, both of whom spoke fluent Arabic and 
made invaluable contributions to the new language through their 
own research and advice. 

In addition to the filing cabinets full of cards, Ben Yehuda had a 
mountainous collection of pieces of paper on which there was addi 
tional material he intended to use when the day came to correlate 


Three Iron Chests 

and compile. He kept most of this mass of "raw material" in a 
wooden chest which was so full that pieces of paper dribbled out 
onto the floor. 

One night, as was his habit when he was searching for notes he 
wished to consult, Ben Yehuda put an oil lamp on the lid of the 
opened chest while he rummaged inside. Just then an old friend 
came into the study, Jacob Shertok, for whom Ben Yehuda had 
found a job in a carpenter shop when he arrived in Palestine twenty 
years before. 

"Is this the way you treat the treasury of our Hebrew language?" 
the visitor asked in dismay. "This is terribly dangerous! You might 
start a fire which would not only destroy you and your home and 
your family, but would reduce to ashes our language as well!" 

So the next day Jacob Shertok ordered ironsmiths to make three 
great fireproof chests. When they were delivered he personally helped 
Ben Yehuda transfer all his papers into them. 

It was some months later that the Ben Yehudas had as a visitor 
in their home Z. D. Levontin, one of the pioneers in the colonization 
of Palestine, one of the founders of the Rishon Le Zion settlement, 
and now manager of the Anglo-Palestine Bank. With him was Dr. 
Isaac Levy, manager of the bank s Jerusalem branch. During the 
evening Eliezer brought up the delicate subject of a loan. 

"For what purpose, and what is your security?" Levontin asked, 
suddenly putting on his office manner. 

"To print my dictionary," Ben Yehuda replied. Then, waving a 
hand toward the iron chests, he added: 

"My dictionary which is now imprisoned in those vaults." 

It was Dr. Levy who spoke up next, saying: 

"I do not understand. What do the chests contain?" 

Ben Yehuda opened them. He said that if he could get a loan of 
five thousand francs it would be sufficient. When the bankers asked 
for more details, he explained his plan. 

He now figured that he had material enough to fill four volumes. 
Five thousand francs would enable him to have the first volume 
printed. The proceeds from the sale of the first would cover the cost 
of printing the second. The proceeds from the second would cover 
the cost of printing the third. The proceeds from the third would 


Tongue of the Prophets 

cover the cost of the fourth. The proceeds of the fourth would be 
used to repay the original loan. 

The answer the bankers finally gave Ben Yehuda was a loan of 
one thousand francs, which he accepted, although with this limited 
amount of credit he knew he would be able to put out only three 
small booklets containing less than one third of the material which 
eventually was to comprise the first volume of the dictionary, which 
was to run to many, many more volumes than he or anyone else 
even imagined at this point. 

Hemda later went to Levontin and asked him to increase the 
credit. When the banker* hesitated, in a typical burst of self-confi 
dence she said: 

"Maybe you will laugh, but I tell you that if you help finance the 
dictionary the day will come when Ben Yehuda will be one of the 
most important clients of your bank, for we will deposit all the funds 
we receive from the sale of the dictionary with you !" 

This piece of salesmanship failed to impress Levontin. Then 
Hemda offered to have the iron chests full of notes put in the bank s 
vault as security. He laughed at this suggestion, saying: 

"We take solid collateral as security for loans, but not iron chests 
full of pieces of worthless paper covered with Hebrew handwriting 
intelligible to only one man in the world, and a sick man at that!" 

About this time the Ben Yehudas were visited by a celebrated 
oriental-language scholar from Budapest, Professor Samuel Krauss, 
who spent days going over the dictionary material, analyzing, perus 
ing, criticizing. 

Dr. Krauss gave Ben Yehuda more encouragement than anyone 
else had ever given him. The Hungarian scholar complimented him 
on his careful research and on his scientific methods. He expressed 
amazement at the amount of heretofore undiscovered philological 
material he had unearthed. He called the project a "Herculean task 
which no one but a man with tremendous enterprise and boundless 
eiiergy could ever have undertaken." He said that if Ben Yehuda s 
work had no other results, it had been worth while because of the 
new light it threw on many obscure passages in the Bible. 

Professor Krauss wanted to see Jericho, so the Ben Yehudas took 
him to the ancient biblical city, where they saw the oldest and one 


Three Iron Chests 

of the most modern modes of travel side by side, the camel and the 

"I know the Hebrew word for c camel, " the professor said with a 
smile, "but have you coined a word yet for bicycle ?" 

It was Ben Yehuda s turn to smile. 

"Yes, and it is already in common usage. The word is offnayim, 
coming from the word for wheel and the word for two/ " 

Hemda added: 

"If you visit us thirty years from now, Professor, we shall bring 
you to Jericho again and your eyes will behold airplanes, automo 
biles, and trolley cars, and in your ears will resound the Hebrew 
words for all of them." 



Overnight Hotel Jews Only 


caused the nervous breakdown that Eliezer Ben Yehuda suffered 
about this time, but a doctor in Jerusalem suggested he had an in 
curable cancer and so he went to Berlin to consult specialists. 

While he was away a handsome young man in a blue uniform 
with polished brass buttons walked through the door of the Ben 
Yehuda home one morning and greeted the family as casually as if 
he had come from around the corner instead of from Paris, thou 
sands of miles away. 

"What has happened, Ben Zion?" Hemda gasped. 

"Oh, nothing! 3 the boy replied casually. "There was a little strike 
of students against the principal of the Ecole Normale, and of course 
I was in it. I had to be loyal to my friends, the revolutionaries of the 

"You mean you were dismissed for taking part in the strike?" 

"That was not the reason they gave. They had me looked at by a 
doctor who said I had tuberculosis. But Dr. Nordau says I am 
healthy and normal. 33 

With Eliezer away, Hemda was perplexed over what to do with 


Overnight Hotel Jews Only 

her stepson. He was much more independent with her than with his 

"At least," she finally said, "you must take off the school uniform. 
You no longer have any right to wear it." 

But Ben Zion refused to obey any of her commands. Instead he 
kept on the uniform and left for Jaffa. Some days later Hemda re 
ceived a letter of apology. He said he had a job teaching school. 
Yemeemah also received a letter that she could make a living in 
Jaffa giving private lessons. Over Hemda s protests she left too. 

Meanwhile, in Berlin, Eliezer had been told he did not have can 
cer; he was merely suffering from nervous exhaustion. When he re 
turned to Jerusalem his two rebellious children came home from 
Jaffa to take part in the welcome for him. 

Ben Yehuda told them how impressed he had been in Berlin with 
the high standards of the schools. With the assistance of Professor 
Otto Warburg, member of a family prominent in both Berlin and 
New York, he had made arrangements for Ben Zion to enter the 
oriental-language section of the university, to equip himself to help 
later on the dictionary. Yemeemah would be admitted to the teach 
ers seminary. 

The children finally agreed to go to Berlin. Before long, however, 
the parents began receiving letters that Ben Zion was neglecting his 
language studies and had become infected with the virus of journal 
ism, for which there is no cure. Then Ben Zion himself wrote that he 
had become assistant to the Berlin correspondent of a Paris news 
paper. In the same letter he sent his first article from abroad for 
Ben Yehuda s paper. 

In this period, in the first years of the twentieth century, little 
progress was being made toward the establishment of the Jewish 
state. HerzFs plan to "buy" Palestine had failed of achievement, and 
the first of his predictions had not come to pass. The year 1902 had 
come and gone. Still no great power had taken over Palestine and 
given it to the Jews. 

More and more anti- Jewish regulations were being promulgated 
by the Turks. Jewish immigration had to be effected illegally. No 
new colonization was permitted. And there seemed to be no hope 
that the situation would ever change for the better. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

It was no wonder, then, that there was excitement when the 
Colonial Secretary of England, Joseph Chamberlain, proposed that 
six thousand square miles in the Guas Ngishu or Uasin Gishu Pla 
teau of British East Africa be turned over to the Jews for the estab 
lishment of their own state under British protection. The spot was 
not in Uganda proper, but the scheme came to be known, anyway, 
as the Uganda Plan. 

Seldom in the two thousand years of the Jews* dispersal had any 
announcement precipitated such an immediate taking of sides. 
Eliezer Ben Yehuda was one of the first to come out in favor of the 

"This is a great ray of sudden light!" he said. "At last we shall 
have a shelter, free from persecution; a home where England, at 
least, will protect us in our yearning for self-government and peace. 
Even though it is far away, we will be able to gather there from the 
four corners of our exile, and there we will be able to learn state 
hood and prepare ourselves for the time when we shall receive our 
ancient heritage, the land of Israel, for which we have prayed these 
two thousand years." 

To Hemda he said : 

"At last I shall be free to write openly about Zionism. This devel 
opment surely will calm the fears of the Turks that Palestine will be 
snatched from their empire." 

The older Orthodox Jews took the attitude that this was fine. 
Now Ben Yehuda and the young settlers and the other rebels and 
heretics would go off to Uganda, and Palestine would belong again 
to the religious who spent their days at the Wailing Wall praying for 
the arrival of the Messiah to save them. So strangely enough, they, 
too, became ardent supporters of Chamberlain s Uganda Plan. 

But the younger generation in the settlements did no rejoicing. 
They had planted their roots here and had grown to love the land. 
Were all the sacrifices they had made going to count for nothing? 
Must they renounce their dreams of a new Israel on the site of the 

Ben Yehuda tried to answer them, saying that nothing would be 
renounced. This would be just a period of preparation for a brilliant 
future. It might take two or three generations to gather together all 


Overnight Hotel Jews Only 

the exiles, to foster in them a national ideal, and to prepare them 
for the day of their final victory. Uganda might not be an ideal 
preparation ground, but no other place had been offered. 

In private conversations he went so far as to argue that in Uganda 
they would be able to build a military force which might someday 
return and take the Holy Land at the point of guns. 

A few were convinced by such arguments, but many continued 
to rebel. 

"Has Ben Yehuda become a traitor to all his own ideals?" they 
would ask. "He wants to settle Jews among Negroes. What a future 
for the Hebrew race !" 

Hemda, when the controversy was at its height, injected a per 
sonal note one night, asking her husband: 

"What will be your attitude, Eliezer, if you are told to go your 
self to Uganda?" 

A strange look came over his face. For a long moment he said 
nothing. Then almost painfully he answered : 

"There would be nothing in the world more difficult to do than 
leave Jerusalem, Bitti. But, if our national life should demand it, I 
am ready to make the sacrifice." 

The reply did not make Hemda happy. She had finally accli 
matized herself to this strange place. She had made all the necessary 
adjustments to the primitiveness, the prejudices, the provinciality 
of Palestine. Now she must contemplate moving to a torrid place 
called Uganda, in the unfathomable wilderness of Africa ! 

"It overwhelms me," she burst out, "with apprehension and 
alarm. I see a vision of our children becoming victims of that terri 
ble disease they call sleeping sickness. A hundred thousand have 
died of it in the past year or two." 

The Ben Yehuda conflict between husband and wife was being 
repeated at firesides all over Palestine. In general the women were 
against the scheme. Their most emotional argument, but one which 
the men found difficult to answer, was that the blood stream of Jews 
and Africans would unavoidably become blended, and a race of 
Negro Jews would evolve which might not be a credit to either Jews 
or Africans. 

Reports from abroad indicated that the controversy had no geo- 


Tongue of the Prophets 

graphical limits. Theodor Herzl had taken exactly the stand Ben 
Yehuda had. Israel Zangwill joined the Uganda ranks. So did Dr. 
Nordau, who coined an expression everyone began to use. He called 
Uganda "our overnight hotel. 53 But Russian, Rumanian, and Gali- 
cian Jews rose up in arms against the plan. 

Then a letter came from Ben Zion, who had celebrated his twenty- 
first birthday by changing his name. At his birth Ben Yehuda had 
been persuaded to drop the name of Ittamar which he had at first 
given him. Now the boy had reassumed that name, adding to it 
"Ben Avi" (Son of My Father) . A letter came in which the son of 
his father said he must express himself without equivocation about 
Uganda. He was against the plan. 

Many other fathers and sons split over the issue. In London, 
Norman Bentwich opposed his own father s championship of the 
Uganda Plan. 

Ben Yehuda devoted all his waking hours to turning out literary 
arguments for Uganda. Seeing him work, no one would have thought 
that he had ever been ill. He glowed now with enthusiasm. An inner 
fire seemed to be driving him on. He wrote articles which were re 
printed in papers all over Europe. He, Herzl, and Nordau ex 
changed frequent letters. All three were being condemned as "de 
stroyers of Israel, no longer worthy to be respected." 

As feelings in Palestine reached fever pitch (it was August, when 
the temperature was also at its highest) there arrived in Jerusalem 
unannounced a member of the Zionist Organization s executive 
committee, Menahem Ben Mosche Ussishkin, who had come to Pal 
estine "to get inspiration to take to the Sixth Zionist Congress with 

It soon came out, however, that he was violently opposed to 
Uganda and hoped to "convert" Ben Yehuda and others. There 
were many arguments, but no one budged from his previous posi 
tion. Finally Ussishkin declared to Ben Yehuda: 

"Let us forget Uganda. Whatever is done about it, the time has 
come for an organization of Palestinian Jews whose voices can be 
heard at the congress and who will strengthen the Zionist cause." 

Ben Yehuda wrote an editorial calling for a convention to form 
such an organization. The meeting took place at Zichron Yaakov. 


Overnight Hotel Jews Only 

Delegates came from all corners of the country. It was the first 
convention of Jews in two thousand years conducted entirely in 

Ben Yehuda arranged it so that Ussishkin received most of the 
limelight and full credit for having brought the meeting about. 
Ussishkin knew what to do with the limelight when he got it. He 
made such an impression on the delegates that he attained immedi 
ately a sort of immortality. The street on which the convention hall 
stood was renamed in his honor. Trees were planted "to perpetuate 
for centuries the memory of the man we today applaud/ 3 

The meeting developed no serious controversy. Uganda was 
hardly mentioned. 

Ussishkin went from Zichron Yaakov almost immediately to 
Kharkov, Russia, where he called a secret meeting of Herd s oppo 
nents for the purpose, it was reported, of lining up opposition to 
Uganda at the forthcoming Sixth Zionist Congress. Ben Yehuda re 
ceived a message that at this meeting Ussishkin, speaking as an offi 
cial representative of the new Palestinian organization, had stated 
that this large body of Palestinians was against Uganda. 

Ben Yehuda promptly wrote an editorial he called "A Confes 
sion/* in which he pleaded guilty to having allowed himself to be 
used as a dupe in a political ruse. He accused Ussishkin of having 
organized the Palestinians merely to use them as weapons against 

Most Palestinians were revolted. The signs on the street named 
after Ussishkin were torn down. The trees planted in his honor were 
dug up before they had had time to take root. The table on which 
the group s constitution had been written was burned. 

Then the Sixth Zionist Congress convened and the effects of 
Ussishkin s conniving were seen. 

Herzl dramatically stated the case for Uganda. Nordau made a 
brilliant speech. But Ussishkin, although not present, had lined up 
the opposition. The Russian delegates bitterly attacked Herzl. It was 
a war between East and West, the West represented by delegates 
from Germany, Austria, England, and France; the East being the 
Polish-Russian bloc. 

So much emotion was displayed that this session of the Zionists 


Tongue of the Prophets 

was referred to by historians as "the Crying Congress. 3 Herd suc 
ceeded in getting a resolution passed merely calling for a commis 
sion to investigate conditions in Uganda, but it was a victory which 
soon turned to defeat. The Russian delegates walked out of the Con 
gress, talking of secession. Others followed them. 

Not long afterward Ussishkin called a conference of his followers 
at Kharkov and demanded that Uganda be dropped. Herzl knew 
that in the face of such opposition it had better be dropped. The 
Russians had paralyzed the movement. Besides, British non-Jews in 
East Africa had now become belligerent. 

Herzl had gone from the Basle congress aware of his eventual 

defeat on the issue. His health in the weeks that followed deterio- 

rated rapidly. Although he was only forty-four, his figure was 
stooped, his eyes had grown darkened, and his mouth was drawn in 

In April 1904 he called a meeting of the Zionist Actions Commit 
tee in Vienna, and after two hours of debate Uganda was given its 
coup de grace. 

Thus the Jews of the world turned a cold shoulder to the British 
offer of a temporary homeland and left the doors open for nearly 
half a century more of struggle, war, bloodshed, and tears, but they 
also left the doors open for the eventual establishment of the Jewish 
state on the soil where it really belonged. 

Many since then have speculated on what a difference it would 
have made in Jewish history, perhaps even in the history of the 
world, if Ussishkin and his followers had not fought Herzl and if 
Uganda, deep in the heart of Africa, had become a Jewish place. 

Uganda left scare. 

Theodor Herzl became seriously ill and isolated himself in the 
cloistered quiet of a sanitarium. 

Max Nordau, while attending a Zionist ball in Paris, was shot 
at twice by a Jewish fanatic. Fortunately he was not hit. 

Eliezer Ben Yehuda tried to go back to his dictionary, but for the 
first time in his life work was no palliative for defeat. 

One evening he said to Hemda : 

"I cannot understand what has happened to me. I pick up my 


Overnight Hotel Jews Only 

pen, dip it in ink, put the point on paper, but nothing happens. The, 
ink will not flow. The words refuse to be written. I wonder what it 
is, Bitti." 

Hemda knew. Eliezer s heart had been broken. He was like an 
ardent young lover whose fiancee is taken by death on the eve of the 
wedding. He seldom ate any more. He tossed on his bed at night. He 
was like a man with apoplexy, only it was his spirit which had been 
stricken, not his body. 

Ussishkin, taking advantage of his victory, sent two of his disciples 
to Palestine to organize the anti-Herzl, anti-Ben Yehuda forces. This 
was not difficult. Few remained loyal. 

The Ashkenazic Jews and the extremely Orthodox group, now 
that there was no longer a possibility of Ben Yehuda s taking his 
new language and his radical ideas off to Africa, went after him 

Turkish officials, who for a brief moment had relaxed their an 
tagonism, thinking they might soon be rid of the Jews, now clamped 
down with even more stringent regulations. Henceforth no Jew 
would be allowed to enter Palestine without a red passport indicat 
ing he was a tourist on a limited visit. 

And the baron? Whenever the mail arrived Ben Yehuda was cer 
tain it would contain a letter from Paris announcing that there 
would be no more Rothschild financial aid. 

The circulation of the Review, built up slowly and painfully, 
tumbled to such a low point its editor wondered whether it was 
worth printing any more. 

No longer, now, was the Ben Yehuda home a meeting place for 
those eager to exchange bright new ideas. Even close personal friends 
hesitated to call until after dark, fearing they might be seen by gos 
sips who would revile them too. 

Then one day as Ben Yehuda was standing in the doorway of his 
home, hoping that a breath of fresh air might make his head feel 
better, a boy arrived with a cable. 

At this moment Hemda came from the house with Ehud, who 
then was nearly seven. 


Her husband s fingers trembled as he tried to open the cable. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"I imagine from Paris. From the baron. Probably telling " 

But it was not from Paris. It was from Ben Avi in Berlin, 


Eliezer dropped the paper and put both hands to his head. 

Half to himself he mumbled : 

"Herzl dead! It really was Ussishkin who killed him." 

As Hemda led her husband into the house Ehud ran to the nurs 
ery and shouted to the other children: 

"Herzl is dead! Father just got a message that Ussishkin killed 

Then with the bravado of a boy of seven he shouted: 

"Now I am going to kill Ussishkin !" 

That remark by an excited child was soon to be repeated all over 
Jerusalem. Then in Jaffa. Finally it spread to the settlements. Even 
tually it reached Europe. In its repetition it became distorted. By the 
time Ussishkin himself heard it, it was Mrs. Ben Yehuda who was 
reported to have made the threat. 

Years later Ussishkin, encountering Hemda on a Berlin street, 
threw open his coat with a dramatic gesture, saying: 

"I hear you once expressed a desire to kill me. Here is your 

Ben Yehuda was certain that all differences would at least tem 
porarily be forgotten, so he at once set about organizing a memorial 
service and national day of mourning. 

"But, Eliezer," his wife said, "what about the Turkish govern 
ment? They hated him so !" 

"The Turks persecute life," he replied, "but like us Jews, they are 
respectful of the holiness of death." 

Ben Yehuda himself wrote the placards announcing the death and 
helped set them in type. Then the Ben Yehuda home was turned 
into a factory for the making of black ribbons to be worn on the arm. 

The posters were distributed even to the schools. With each went 
a personal letter from Ben Yehuda, saying: 

"Whatever your convictions about Zionism, a great Jew has died, 
a man of deep integrity and unparalleled sincerity. We ask you to 
assist in a memorial service for him." 


Overnight Hotel Jews Only 

All Jerusalem streamed silently and respectfully to the ancient 
synagogue in the Old City where the service was held. School chil 
dren marched behind black-draped banners. The crowd was so great 
that only a small percentage could get into the building. 

Many young people accompanied the Ben Yehudas back to their 
home. The house was too small for the number, so they assembled 
in the garden and asked the editor to address them, which he did. 

The next day Hemda found Eliezer standing beside the iron chests 
in his study. On the top of one chest was the almost completed 
manuscript for the first volume of the dictionary. There was a 
strange glassy look in Eliezer s eyes. In his left hand he held a box of 

"Eliezer!" she screamed. 

Startled, he dropped the matchbox, stared at her blankly for an 
instant, then slumped into a chair. 

"What were you going to do?" 

"Burn it all!" 


"I know now I have made a mistake ever trying to do it. If it 
were not a mistake, the opposition would not have been so great." 

"Eliezer! You have never indulged in self-pity before!" 

"Call it what you will, but I am finished. I cannot think any 
more. I find it impossible to work. I prefer to die, and when I die 
I do not wish to leave all this behind." 

As he said it he made a listless gesture toward the chests. 

"But when you die, Eliezer, this will be your great heritage." 

"No ! I shall never permit that another shall come and obtain glory 
and fortune from the blood of my body and the tortures of my soul, 
while you and the children live in misery. I wish to die, and I wish 
my work to die with me. Ashes, together." 

"Eliezer, do you not remember your own words to the people who 
came to our garden after the Herzl service? You said to them : "The 
living are persecuted, but the dead are sanctified! " 

"Maybe that is why I wish to die. What is life worth if I cannot 
serve my people? They refuse to be served! What is a new Hebrew 
language for if no one wants it? What is a dictionary for? Who will 
use it?" 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Hemda dug the nails of her fingers into the palms of her hands 
and tried a new approach. 

"Eliezer, I agree with you about death. I, too, am tired and dis 
couraged. But our children . . ." 

"I have thought of them. They will grow up like all the other 
orphans of the world. They might even benefit by our death. 35 

"But, Eliezer, we are deeply in debt. How can we betray those 
who have helped us? I have an idea! I shall borrow money and 
travel to Europe and sell your manuscript to the British Museum or 
to some other institution. With the money we will pay our debts and 
then together we can move on to the next world. But I beg you, 
Eliezer, do not go without me I" 



"Is This Reality?" 


after she gave birth to Eliezer s eleventh child, a girl named Zaza. 
She left Jerusalem with little money and with a battered suitcase 
full of pieces of paper which constituted the manuscript of the first 
volume of the Ben Yehuda dictionary. 

She was in her early thirties. She had been living for many years 
an almost primitive life in one of the most backward parts of the 
world. In that time she had borne six children, two of whom had 
died. She had had the responsibility for two stepchildren as well as 
a brother and sister. She had nursed her husband through numerous 
almost fatal illnesses. She herself had had typhoid fever and repeated 
attacks of malaria. 

Yet despite all this she had a physical attractiveness and a twinkle 
in her eye which she hoped would serve as allies when it came time 
to beg for the assistance needed to save Eliezer and his work from 
matches and oblivion. 

Hemda had little money to finance her trip, but Eliezer had less 
to keep the family going. There were four small children to look 
after, a paper to edit, and a household to be managed by a man 


Tongue of the Prophets 

who was not very practical. Unless someone reminded him, he was 
never aware it was time for a meal. Only fatigue ever drove him to 

Knowing that his wife was going steerage, he made her promise 
she would try, after the ship sailed, to find some place to sleep. She 
did. She bribed the ship s cook to allow her to use his bed for eight 
of the hours when he was not using it himself. 

When she was not in the cabin sleeping she sat on a packing case 
on the deck and read. One day she inadvertently left a book by 
Schopenhauer behind when she went to dinner. When she returned 
it was gone. A little later the ship s captain sent for her. Holding out 
the book, he asked her if it was hers. A ship s officer had found it 
and had brought it to him, knowing his interest in philosophy. So 
the woman from Jerusalem and the captain became friends, .and he 
asked her what cabin she had. 

Hemda blushed and admitted she had bribed the cook for a 

"No lady who respects herself can use the bed of a cook!" the 
captain growled, then gave her a cabin in second class. So it was 
that Mrs. Ben Yehuda arrived in Trieste looking as fresh and rested 
as any passenger on the ship. 

Her first destination was Budapest, then the center of the greatest 
Orientalist scholars in Europe. First she called on Professor Wilhelm 
Bacher, with whom Eliezer had had the correspondence about the 
"lost word." Opening the battered suitcase and pointing to the 
voluminous manuscript, she said : 

"I have come to ask you to glance over my husband s work and 
give me a frank opinion of it." 

The professor threw up his hands. 

"It will take a week to give you even a casual analysis of it!" 

Hemda smiled bewitchingly. 

"For this my husband has devoted an entire life. I have the 
temerity to hope that you will give it a week of your time." 

With typical Hungarian gallantry he replied : 

"I could not refuse your request, even if I would. I shall submit 
my opinion to you one week from today." 

During the next week Hemda obtained eulogistic reports from 


"Is This Reality?" 

Professor Bacher and three of his colleagues, Professors Ignaz Gold- 
ziher, Samuel Krauss, and Lajos Blau. They said Ben Yehuda was 
making the most important contribution of his generation to the 
science of languages. 

Armed with these recommendations, Hemda took a train for 
Berlin, where she began her search for a publisher. By a stroke of 
luck a friend introduced her to officials of the firm of Langen- 
scheidtsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, a long-established house special 
izing in publishing dictionaries. 

No salesman ever worked harder trying to sell his product than 
Hemda did during that first interview. But all her arguments and 
even the letters from the Budapest scholars seemed to make little 
impression. They would give her a definite answer in five days. 

Hemda waited as nervously as a criminal awaits the verdict. When 
the answer came it stated that there were certain conditions under 
which the firm might be interested. 

At the next meeting Hemda was told that it would be impossible 
for Langenscheidtsche Verlagsbuchhandlung to set the manuscript 
into type. They could make the plates, do the printing, bind the 
book, but the type would have to be set elsewhere. Without knowing 
whether it were even possible, Hemda said the type could be set in 
the Ben Yehuda shop and "mats" shipped to Berlin. 

Then a more delicate matter came up. Payment would be re 
quired in advance. Hemda would have to raise the funds herself. 

At the fourth meeting Hemda was given a long legal document 
which contained a clause stating that if Ben Yehuda died before the 
entire dictionary was completed his widow must carry on the work, 
from his notes, until it was finished. At the fifth meeting the con 
tract was finally signed. 

Hemda wanted to let Eliezer know immediately, but she feared to 
raise Ms hopes and then have them collapse if she was unable to 
raise the funds. Without communicating with him she took a train 
for Paris and went directly to see Narcisse Leven of the Alliance 
Israelite. After one month of pleading she obtained the backing of 
his organization. Then back to Berlin, to go through the same pro 
cedure with Professor Otto Warburg, Dr. Paul Nathan, Professor 
Martin Phillipson, and other leaders of the German Jews. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Four and a half months after her departure from Jerusalem she 
finally succeeded in her mission. The financial backing needed for 
the first volume was guiaranteed by Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden, 
several scientific societies, the Zionist Organization, and Alliance 
Israelite. Her accomplishment was significant to those who knew 
that this was the first time these ordinarily antagonistic groups had 
ever combined to further a single project. 

Knowing the mental and physical condition Eliezer was in, she 
was afraid that even good news might literally kill him with joy. 

So she composed a series of cables, which she sent at intervals. 
In the first she reported the publishing house might consider the 
project. In the second she said they had definitely agreed, but it 
depended on financing. In others she built up to the final news that 
it was now definite; his lifework would soon be coming out in hand 
some bound volumes. 

Hemda never forgot the reply she received. It read: 

"Is this reality, or shall I awaken to find that I have been dream 
ing? 35 

Soon after Hemda returned to Jerusalem a celebration was held 
in the Ben Yehuda home. It commemorated three events, the 
twenty-fifth anniversary of Eliezer s arrival in the Holy Land, which 
had passed some months before without fitting festivities; his fiftieth 
birthday, which was still some months off but which they decided 
might as well be observed at the same time, and the turning point in 
the saga of the dictionary, its acceptance by the house of Langen- 
scheidtsche Verlagsbuchhandlung. 

Eliezer Ben Yehuda was the guest of honor, but less attention 
was paid to him than to a small package Hemda had brought from 
Berlin and which she had never let out of her sight until she had 
placed it, as lovingly and tenderly as if it were a newborn baby, in 
her husband s hands. It contained a "dummy" of the book. It looked 
just as the first volume of the dictionary would look when it finally 
came out, except that the pages were blank. 

"But this is the way it will be bound/ she would explain to each 
new guest. "See how beautiful the leather is !" 


"Is This Reality? 

Then Eliezer, excited, too, would point to the gold letters em 
bossed on the front : 





He did not have to explain to most of the teachers, who knew 
some Latin, that these impressive ancient words meant: 

"A Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew, by 
Eliezer Ben Yehuda of Jerusalem." 

Eliezer was exhausted with emotion by the time the last guest had 
left. Sitting in his favorite chair, half to himself and half to his wife, 
who was putting things in order, he said: 

"Someday soon our language, after all, may really begin to grow 
into something rich and beautiful. But the day is so short; the work 
to be done so great ! I think I should go to my study now and com 
mence. The printers must have the first pages this week to start 
setting type. I only hope my strength holds out!" 

In these days the Ben Yehudas had their first proof of an old 
adage, common even in biblical times, that nothing is as influential 
as success. Well-wishers came streaming to the Ben Yehuda home. 
Friends who had hesitated about being seen calling in daylight were 
no longer afraid that their names might be linked with that of the 

With pride, many who had been lukewarm toward the Hebrew 
revival now boasted that "their" language, the language of the Jews, 
would soon, thanks to Ben Yehuda, take its proper place among the 
important languages of the world. 

"The great house of Langenscheidtsche Verlagsbuchhandlung is 
printing it !" They whispered it as if it were a state secret, and while 
they whispered Eliezer Ben Yehuda went to work. 

The first word in the first volume was to be av (father). 

It was Hemda who sentimentally suggested that Eliezer himself 
should set the first few lines of type. It was Hemda who, when the 
printers finished setting the first column and brought the heavy mass 
of type to Eliezer for inspection, said: 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"This first column of the first volume is set in lead type. But when 
\ve get to the last column of the last volume I shall see that it is set 
in gold for you !" 

For months Ben Yehuda worked as if on fire. The print shop was 
like a furnace consuming fuel faster than it could be shoveled in. 
Often one of the printers would stand over Eliezer s shoulder waiting 
for the next page. 

For nearly a quarter of a century he had been doing his research, 
collecting notes. Only recently had he begun actually writing the 
text of the book. And being a scholar, he was forever making addi 
tions, corrections, new annotations ; crossing out a word here, polish 
ing a phrase, clarifying an explanation, striving always for perfec 

Those who thought that his dictionary was going to be a mere 
list of Hebrew words with brief definitions were in for a great sur 
prise. Except for the few who had seen the manuscript, no one was 
aware that this was to be unlike any dictionary ever compiled. 

There were pages and pages of type, for example, on that first 
word alone, av. The word kee (because) would have twenty-four 

After each Hebrew word would come the translation into French, 
German, and English. This made the work unique; a multilingual 
dictionary with translations into three languages, besides references 
in Arabic, Assyrian, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. 

Moreover, it was a thesaurus as well as a book of definitions. After 
each word Ben Yehuda listed all the other words which were in any 
way connected with it. Following even (stone), for example, one 
would find the names of various stones and innumerable words per 
taining to or suggested by "stone"; synonyms, antonyms, related 
words. The reader was given the origin of each word, an explanation 
of its construction, a comparison with its sister words in other Semitic 
languages, the changes it had undergone down through the ages, 
and all its nuances, shades, forms, inflections, and uses. 

After each word were examples of its usage, which Ben Yehuda 
called "witnesses." With a language as old as Hebrew there were 
bound to be many more shadings and colorations of meaning, and 
even conflicting uses of a word, than in a younger language. This 


"Is This Reality?" 

had given him one of his greatest problems of research; to find in 
ancient, medieval, and modern literature as many different "wit 
nesses" or uses of each word as possible. 

He had dug out and listed 335 different ways in which it was 
possible to use the Hebrew word lo, meaning "no" or "not." There 
were 210 "witnesses" for ken (yes). 

Unlike the ordinary lexicographer, Ben Yehuda was never satisfied 
to explain the meaning of a word by listing several synonyms. His 
illustrations of meaning were sometimes whole paragraphs. He once 
explained why he did this by saying: 

"A word when standing alone does not impress the memory. It 
means little unless given to the reader as part of a complete thought. 
Only then will it be preserved in memory." 

Many of his "witnesses" were quotations from the Bible and other 
religious books, but there were often long passages from secular 
literature, from the works of little-known poets, or from manuscripts 
he had found somewhere in a distant library. These quotations were 
interesting reading in themselves. They gave pictures of the life of 
early Jews in their homes, market places, fields, and ghettos. For as 
a critic wrote later, Ben Yehuda never examined words, but 
thoughts; he did not accumulate sentences, but whole ideas. 

To anyone reading even a single page of the dictionary it was 
obvious that Ben Yehuda, in selecting a passage as a "witness," was 
guided not only by a philological desire to clarify the word s mean 
ing, but also by a literary and moral urge to present his reader with 
beauty and truth. 

The odd little marks which Ben Yehuda sprinkled through his 
manuscript were marks of his honesty. These symbols appeared 
alongside words which he himself had created. 

"I put them in so the reader can see immediately that these are 
new words, and if he does not like them he should consider them as 



Love, Revolution, Art 


plete work on his first volume many things happened in the world 
outside his study door. 

Ben Avi, his eldest son, now a thoroughly experienced journalist, 
came home from Berlin and turned the paper into a daily, called 
Haor (The Light) . This was the name his father had once tried to 
use, to the offense of the Sultan s censor. 

Yemeemah also came home, in love. The man was a handsome 
German actor and he wanted to marry her. The father blinked. 

"I give you no opinion. You must follow your heart s voice." 

But when Ludwig Frankel appeared to make a formal request for 
the daughter s hand Ben Yehuda, in an arbitrary manner, said : 

"I do not ask whether you are qualified to support a wife. But if 
you wish my consent you must accept certain of my principles. First, 
you must have a Hebrew name, because " 

The young man interrupted: 

"I am ready to change my name." 

"You must also adopt our Hebrew language." 

The actor promised to try to learn it. 


Love, Revolution, Art 

"Third, you must agree to live in Israel," 

The young man smiled. 

"I accept all your conditions. 3 * 

About this same time Ben Avi fell in love with a Spanish Jewess, 
Lea Aboujdid, daughter of a celebrated doctor who had introduced 
scarlet fever antitoxin into Palestine. This delighted Ben Yehuda 
because such a union would be a symbol of the amalgamation of 
the Ashkenazic and Sephardic elements of the community for which 
he had been working since his arrival in Palestine. The girl s family, 
however, was violently opposed because they considered eastern 
European Jews inferior, because Ben Yehuda was a "freethinker/* 
and because the family was poor. It was some years before the 
marriage finally took place. 

A development beyond the borders of Palestine affected the Ben 
Yehudas almost as much as these family affairs. After Herzl s death 
the Zionist Organization had difficulty choosing his successor. The 
logical man was Nordau, but he withdrew himself from considera 
tion because he was in disagreement with many Zionist leaders about 
the colonization of Palestine. He often said he wanted "a Jewish 
state, not a colony; a charter and not just Turkish toleration." 

Nordau s friends told Ben Yehuda that he also was reluctant to 
take leadership because his wife was a Christian. They claimed that 
the real reason he had never accepted the invitation to visit Palestine 
was because his wife said if he ever went she wanted to accompany 
him so she could visit the Christian shrines. She herself was a great 
respecter of human rights and freedom of religion. It would have 
been difficult to explain to her why her husband, as a Zionist leader, 
might have been embarrassed if she had toured Palestine with 
Christian leaders while he made the rounds of the Jewish religious 

So instead of Nordau, the Zionists had chosen David Wolff&ohn, a 
wealthy, middle-aged Lithuanian businessman who had been ex 
tremely generous in his support of Jewish charities and had founded 
the bank in London designed to finance Palestinian colonization. 

After his election Wolffsohn and his wife came to Palestine. They 
were received with great friendliness, but some complained that 
Wolffsohn was not a dreamer like Herzl. He prided himself on being 


Tongue of the Prophets 

a conservative businessman and was always advising caution at a 
time when many Zionists insisted on the need for bold action. 

David WolfFsohn, it developed, was closely related to David Wolf- 
son, the uncle who had driven Eliezer as a boy from his home when 
he caught him reading Robinson Crusoe in Hebrew, but he himself 
was apparently not aware of his kinship to the Jerusalem lexicog 
rapher, and Ben Yehuda never enlightened him. 

There were many who were pleased, the Ben Yehudas among 
them, when Wolffsohn was succeeded by Professor Otto Warburg, 
who not only was a brilliant scholar, a millionaire, and a gentleman 
of great breeding, but was also one of the group in Berlin who, by 
responding to Hemda s appeal, were making it possible for the pub 
lication of the first volume of the dictionary. 

But the event in this period which had a greater influence than 
anything else on the lives of the Ben Yehudas and the entire Jewish 
population of Palestine was the Turkish revolution, which stripped 
Abdul Hamid II of the power which he had held for a quarter of a 
century over twenty-five million people in Asia and southern Europe. 

In Palestine the superstitious called it a "miracle" that this tyrant 
had now been brought to his knees. When a constitutional govern 
ment was established by the Young Turks, all Palestine, Jews and 
Arabs alike, joined in rejoicing that tyranny was at an end. 

Ben Avi brought the news to his father s study, shouting: 

"We are free, Father! At last we are free to write and think and 
talk as we please! Forget your dictionary! Let s celebrate!" 

Ben Avi was partly right. The pressure of tyranny was lessened, 
though not entirely dissipated. Censorship was abolished. Before 
long the Young Turks were giving out permits for the publication of 
new newspapers to almost anyone who could sign his name on an 

Then the tables were turned. Ben Avi was now the one who was 
complaining. A new daily had been started in Jerusalem called 
Heirnt (Liberty), and although it had little political significance, it 
was competition for the Light. Smaller papers also sprang into ex 
istence which were quickly nicknamed "Little Ben Yehudas"; papers 
which nibbled at the circulation of the parent. 


Love, Revolution, Art 

But in his idealistic way the senior Ben Yehuda decided that this 
was all to the ultimate good. The more papers in Hebrew, the more 
people who would be reading and learning the language. 

It was in this same period that an attractive young man appeared 
one day at the Ben Yehuda home and introduced himself as Pro 
fessor Boris Schatz of Vilna. He had just come from Sofia, Bulgaria, 
by way of Berlin. He was a sculptor and with an artist friend, Efraim 
Lilien, was contemplating the opening of a school of arts and crafts 
in Jerusalem. He wanted the advice of Mr. Ben Yehuda, please. 

He had made this speech of introduction in a bad mixture of 
Russian, French, and German. Nevertheless, Ben Yehuda sat for 
six hours discussing the project with him. Schatz explained that he 
wanted "not merely to teach arts and crafts, but to create a Jewish 

Ben Yehuda was excited by the project and agreed to give it his 
full co-operation on one condition. 

"And what is that?" the young sculptor asked. 

"The school must be conducted exclusively in Hebrew. You must 
remain a prisoner hi our home until you yourself can speak a little of 
the language. My wife, in her spare time, will teach you." 

Professor Schatz replied with consternation: 

"But we brought our student body with us, ten enthusiastic young 
Jews from various European countries. I am afraid none of them 
knows Hebrew either." 

"We shall arrange for them too," Ben Yehuda said. 

So Boris Schatz, with little chance to argue, literally became an 
inmate in what he always afterward called "the Ben Yehuda Prison." 
It was six months before Hemda told him he knew enough Hebrew t 
to be allowed his "liberty." 

Meanwhile his partner, Lilien, the painter, found a room close by 
but took his meals with the Ben Yehudas and sat in on the Hebrew 
lessons, learning in quicker time than Schatz. 

The ten art students were installed in a Jewish school, this being 
summer vacation. Mattresses were spread on the floor and a com 
munal kitchen was established, in charge of a teacher of Hebrew 
who cooked as well as conducted classes. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Thus the Bezalel School of Fine Arts was established, with 
Hemda as secretary without pay, so she could make certain the 
Hebrew-language promise was kept. 

While the twelve "immigrants" were mastering the ancient lan 
guage they also kept busy painting and sculpting. Finally it was 
decided to open the school to the public with as much fanfare as 

A building had been rented across the street from the Ben Yehuda 
home. Invitations were sent out for an "open house." 

Jerusalem had had nothing to gossip about for a long time. But 
now it seethed with a new controversy. The young and rebellious 
spirits were excited over the entrance of art into their lives, but the 
reactionaries were shocked. 

A school of art? Images on canvas and stone which violated the 
second commandment! Infidel things! Idolatry! More of the mach 
inations of that heretic, Ben Yehuda! 

Yet crowds came, some out of genuine interest, many out of plain 
curiosity; some prepared to admire, many merely to get ammunition 
to use in their denunciations. They came in their Sabbath dress, the 
young in semi-European clothes, others in blue, green, and yellow 
velvet, some even wearing the fur-trimmed hats which were the 
mark of ultra-religious Jews. 

What they saw first as they streamed through the doors was a 
large statue of the Messiah by Glicenstein. There was a painting by 
Reuben Lifschitz, who was to distinguish himself in later years as an 
artist; a bust of Ben Yehuda by Joseph Hebroni; a bust of Nietzsche 
by Max Kruse, and even a copy of Michelangelo s Moses. 

The building buzzed with the excitement of it. The adversaries de 
nounced with vehemence; the young progressives were loud in their 
praise. In between these two groups were people who had never 
seen art before and were confused about what to think. 

Those who had come on purpose to criticize saw in the head of 
the lexicographer a perfect object of their pent-up scorn. Some even 
spat at it. Others seemed so eager to destroy it that finally the two 
directors decided that until Jerusalem, became more art-conscious 
and more tolerant of Ben Yehuda, it would be well to place a guard 
over Mr. Hebroni s creation. 


Love, Revolution, Art 

The Ben Yehuda head, regardless of what some of Jerusalem 
thought of it, later won Hebroni a scholarship to the Berlin Academy 
of Arts. 

With that open house as a start, the Bezalel School quickly be 
came a pulsating influence in Jerusalem. 

Ben Yehuda took time off from his dictionary work to instruct the 
students in Hebrew history and to teach them where to find old 
Jewish motifs to incorporate into their work. 

Lilien, through Ben Yehuda s influence, conceived the idea of an 
illustrated Bible and began making sketches and looking for a pub 

Craftsmen came to the school for help in improving the style and 
design of their work. The school s influence even reached into Jew 
ish homes. Pictures now began to appear on walls. Housewives, 
learning about "taste," began replacing "atrocities" with attractive 
furniture and tried to make their homes attractive. 

Thus art began to lose her status as a vagrant in the Holy Land. 

When the first copy of the first volume of the first real Hebrew 
dictionary ever published arrived in Jerusalem from Berlin there 
was great excitement in the Ben Yehuda home. 

Although no one made the comparison at the time, it is doubtful 
whether the arrival of any one of the eleven children that had been 
borne to Eliezer Ben Yehuda stirred within him quite the feelings 
he had on this occasion. 

On the page following the title page there was a dedication to 
Baron Edmond de Rothschild, in gratitude for all he had done to 
make possible the work which this book represented. 

It was typical of Ben Yehuda that he began worrying about the 
second volume the very day the first one came from the press. 

The funds which had come from Paris and Berlin were now ex 
hausted. The experience with the first volume proved that it took at 
least one year and the equivalent of two thousand dollars to put a 
single volume into print. And now it seemed certain that it would 
require eight or ten volumes to get through the alphabet, for the 
first volume covered only two letters, deph and bet h. 

"Why don t we worry about one volume at a time?" Hemda said. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"The first is out. We need money for the second, so I think I had 
better go up to Berlin and see our committee there." 

"If you feel you must go to Berlin, Bitti, I think I shall go with 
you. After all, it would be profitable to me, because I could work in 
the libraries there while you were doing something about money 

The man who walked timidly through thie doors of the great 
German publishing house of Langenscheidtsche Verlagsbuchhand- 
lung still had the build of an adolescent boy. Whenever he removed 
his hat his close-cropped hair stood straight up like so many soldiers 
at attention. His Vandyke beard and mustache were also trimmed 
short. But it was his eyes that commanded attention. A fire seemed 
always to be burning just back of them. 

The woman at his side was much healthier in appearance, with a 
good figure, brown hair of an attractive shade showing from under 
her hat, and with none of the nervousness her husband had. She was 
almost fourteen years his junior and looked it. Her eyes also com 
manded attention, but for a different reason. There was a coquettish 
quality to them which years of struggle and suffering had not 

Together they walked through the doors of the publishing house. 
Officials of the firm of Langenscheidtsche Verlagsbuchhandlung 
bowed low and treated Ben Yehuda in the manner that a great pub 
lishing house reserves for one of its celebrated authors. Before the 
visit was over, however, they impressed upon him that he must live 
up to the agreement that material for subsequent volumes would be 
rapidly forthcoming. 

Hemda took Eliezer to visit the Berlin Jews who had raised the 
money for the first volume and had formed themselves into a com 
mittee, with Dr. Abraham Shalom Yahuda, whom Ben Yehuda had 
taught as a child in Jerusalem, as secretary, and Martin Phillipson 
as chairman. They all congratulated Eliezer and told him he had 
justified their confidence in him. Later, meeting alone with Hemda, 
they agreed to raise the money needed for Volume Two. It would 
be sent in regular installments to them. 

After the meeting Professor Warburg, who had made the largest 


Love, Revolution, Art 

personal pledge on this and the previous occasion, took Hemda 
aside and said that while they were in Berlin they were to consider 
themselves as his guests; he would pay all their expenses. 

There were tears in Hemda s eyes as she thanked him and then 
rushed off to tell Eliezer the good news. 

From Berlin they went to Paris. There Hemda received a long 
letter from David Yonas, her eldest brother. He was a lawyer and 
had recently moved from Russia to Finland. He had been one of the 
few Jews allowed to practice in St. Petersburg and had built up 
enough of a fortune to retire in comfort. Hemda had written him 
about her husband s dictionary, thinking she might get him finan 
cially interested. 

He replied that if the Jews of Palestine wanted a dictionary it 
was all right with him. But let them pay for it. However, if she and 
her family needed a vacation, she should send for the children and 
all of them should come to his new home in Finland. He would send 
railway tickets. Everything would be paid. 

As Yemeemah and her actor husband were about to leave Jeru 
salem for Paris anyway, Hemda cabled them to bring the four small 

When Ehud, Ada, Shlomit (now called Dola), and Zaza arrived 
in Paris, each child was provided with an outfit of the best clothes 
the French capital had to offer, by courtesy of "Uncle David." 

The Ben Yehuda family spent two months in Finland. Hemda 
and the children had never been so happy and carefree, but Eliezer 
was restless. He seemed almost relieved when a letter came from the 
Berlin publishing house asking why none of the second volume had 
been received. 


Hats in Hand 


proving in Palestine for the Jews. The ban against construction of 
homes by Jews was relaxed; also the prohibition against Jewish im 

New colonies were being established. On the shore of the Mediter 
ranean, close beside Jaffa, a new city was taking form on what had 
been wasteland. It was going to be called Tel Aviv (Hill of Spring) , 
a name inspired by one of Herzl s books. Tel Aviv would be the 
first really Jewish city in two thousand years. 

After Hemda and Eliezer returned they were instrumental in 
organizing a parade of pupils of Jerusalem schools who could speak 
Hebrew. It reached from Machney Yehuda Street to the suburb of 
Motza. As Eliezer rubbed his eyes and stared he exclaimed: 

"This is the living Hebrew language. Four miles of it V 

By this time Eliezer had completed work on the letter gimeL But 
as he tackled daleth his strength and spirit began to ebb. 

"I feel like a mountain climber all the time, Bitti. I just get over 
one difficult peak, and before I can catch my breath, there ahead is 
another peak to be scaled. Each peak, each letter, has its dangers, its 
problems. And I get so tired these days!" 


Hats in Hand 

Hemda tried to get him to rest each seventh day to regain his 
strength. He refused. She tried to get him to take a nap each after 
noon. He argued he had no right to "waste" time. She tried to get 
him to pause at sunset for a cup of tea. He said he had lost his taste 
for tea. When she invited some of his old friends in for the evening, 
he would greet them in friendly manner, then, excusing himself, 
would go back to his study to work. 

While Eliezer was still struggling with daleth, the monthly pay 
ments from Berlin stopped. The Ben Yehuda debts began to mount. 
The printers wanted their pay. Money was needed for additional 

At first Hemda kept Eliezer ignorant of the difficulties, hoping the 
payments from Berlin would be resumed soon. But getting no reply 
to letters and cables, she finally told him that no more words could 
be set into type. 

Eliezer put a hand to his tired head and merely said: 

"I do not understand. I do not understand." 

Then he went back to his study again. 

Next time he came out he collapsed in a chair and said: 

"I wonder why I am so tired. I never used to get tired, Bitti, did 
I? And my fingers ! Sometimes they get so cramped I can no longer 
hold the pen !" 

Hemda knew there was nothing she could do about his fatigue, 
but she could do something about the lack of funds. Obviously there 
was no more hope from Berlin. She would have to go to Paris. But 
Eliezer could not be left behind in his condition, so she finally per 
suaded him to go with her, although he loudly complained: 

"Why must we keep going places? Always and always it seems 
that we have to be wandering Jews, with our hats in our hands! 
From door to door. Country to country. Continent to continent. 

"I suppose it will never end. We go now to get money for the 
second volume. Then for the third. Then the fourth. The fifth. The 
sixth. The seventh. The eighth. And I am so tired !" 

From an unexpected quarter they obtained a loan of enough to 
permit them to travel third-class to Paris. When they reached Jaffa, 
Eliezer was so exhausted that Hemda took him to the hotel and left 
him, saying: 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"Lie on the bed and rest. I shall be back soon. 55 

She had no idea where she was going. As she walked down a nar 
row street, letting her feet take her where they would, she glanced 
up at a second-story window and saw a sign which read: 


She had heard about the "Palestine Office." It had been founded 
by the same Professor Warburg who had been so kind up in Berlin. 
It was under the direction of Dr. Arthur Ruppin. 

Without any specific idea in mind Hemda mounted the stairs. 
The office was the tiniest she had ever seen, hardly six feet square, 
with a table and two chairs. 

She had to talk to Dr. Ruppin in German, for he knew no 
Hebrew. She talked to him about the dictionary and the problem of 
money. He shrugged his shoulders and said : 

"But why come to me? I do not even know the language. 5 * 

Then Hemda, having spontaneously gotten the idea, asked him to 
call a meeting of the most influential Jews in Jaffa and see what he 
could do. Dr. Ruppin tried to beg off. But Hemda, feeling that she 
was fighting to keep alive the flame of her husband s passion, finally 
had her way and a meeting was called. 

Z. D. Levontin, the banker, was there, and Judah Grazovski, who 
by now had collaborated on a pocket dictionary himself and had 
translated Dickens and Mark Twain into Hebrew. Dr. Shemarya 
Levin, an enthusiast for the Hebrew language, came, and also Dr. 
Meyer Berlin, a prominent social worker, and others. 

Hemda did all the talking, in Hebrew. Exactly what she said she 
was later never able to remember. When she finished there were few 
questions, because many of the men had only a slight knowledge of 
Hebrew, yet were embarrassed not to speak Ben Yehuda s language 
to his wife. 

Finally a sheet of paper was passed around and each man put 
down his name and an amount. In a short time enough was sub 
scribed to assure the completion of the second volume, and Hemda 
rushed back to the hotel to tell her husband. 


Hats in Hand 

After their return to Jerusalem, Eliezer set to work again while 
Hemda went to Berlin to find out what had gone wrong there. It 
was Dr. Nathan who explained. As one of the founders and chief 
supporters of the German- Jewish schools in Palestine, he was indig 
nant that the Ben Yehudas were trying to substitute the teaching of 
Hebrew for German in those schools. He frankly advised Mr. Ben 
Yehuda not to count on any more assistance from Berlin. 

So Hemda proceeded to Switzerland, hoping to borrow enough 
money from her lawyer-brother, who had moved from Finland to a 
suburb of Geneva, to go on to Paris or even New York. But David 
Yonas was more unsympathetic than ever. 

"Either there is or there is not a Jewish nation," he said in a queer 
attempt at logic. "If there is, then it should not have to go begging. 
If not, then why do you stay there? How can there be any need for 
a dictionary if no one wants to speak Hebrew?" 

In Switzerland, Hemda received news from Jerusalem which 
made her realize she must get home quickly. 

It was Ben Avi, this time, who was in trouble. He had been 
desperately in need of financing for his daily paper and had had 
what he thought was the good fortune to meet a man of wealth who 
agreed to provide enough financing not only to continue the paper 
but also to expand it in size and to put on a campaign for more 
circulation which would smother out its rivals. The prospective 
backer would pay Ben Avi a fixed salary and would demand no 
voice in editorial matters. When and if there was profit, he would 

take it. 

Ben Avi had jumped at the offer. But he had ignored the fact that 
his new associate was a Jew who had renounced his religion and be 
come a Christian. 

When the news spread through Jerusalem the storm broke. 

The Ben Yehudas going into partnership with an infidel! What 
depths would that family sink to next? 

Fortunately, the financial "angel" broke his contract a short time 
after Hemda s return and renounced his support of the paper, to 
everyone s relief. 

In the months which followed, the setting into type of the second 


Tongue of the Prophets 

volume was finally completed and the book went to press. It was 
dedicated to Professor Otto Warburg, scholar, philanthropist, man 
of kindly heart. 

Never within the memory of living man had Jerusalem seen as 
much snow as fell on her sharp-pointed minarets, on her golden 
domes, and into her twisting streets that winter. 

It was during this season that the mayor of Bradford, England, 
a wealthy Jew, Jacob Moser, arrived in Jerusalem on a tour of 
Palestine. It was Hemda who got the idea that Mayor Moser un 
doubtedly would understand the importance of a dictionary. (The 
time had come to start raising money for Volume Three.) 

"I am sure everyone has been to see him for all manner of assist 
ance since the day he came," Eliezer remarked pessimistically. 

Saying nothing to her husband of her plans, Hemda conferred 
with Professor Richard James Horatio Gottheil, director of the 
American School for Oriental Research, which was across the street 
from the Ben Yehuda home. She showed him the first two volumes 
of the dictionary and some of the material for the third. Then she 
told him the financial problem. 

The professor looked critically at the two printed books. 

"Why do you make such a large dictionary? Even a tailor cuts 
his pattern according to the amount of material he has !" 

Hemda smiled and quickly retorted : 

"That is our misfortune. We have so much material that we are 
compelled to make a beautiful garment! 5 

Then Hemda asked the professor to invite Mr. Moser to luncheon 
and try to interest him in the dictionary. 

Three days later Professor Gottheil came through the snow to 
report that Mrs. Ben Yehuda s hopes had been in vain. The English 
man was not a bit interested. 

"I told you so, Bitti, didn t I?" was all Eliezer said. 

"Well, sometimes I am right!" his wife responded. 

That afternoon, without telling anyone, she went to the hotel 
where the Englishman was staying. He was away, but she talked 
with his wife, a charming English Jewess, who listened graciously 


Hats in Hand 

and finally agreed to explain the entire matter to her husband and 
try to persuade him to grant Mrs. Ben Yehuda an interview. 

Back home, Hemda began preparing her arguments, 

It was only two hours after she had left the hotel that a carriage 
drove up and out of it came Mr. Levontin, the banker, in a highly 
excited state. He must see Mr. Ben Yehuda. The matter was urgent! 

When he clasped the hand of Eliezer he blurted out: 

"I bear good tidings, my friend !" 

Eliezer blinked and rubbed a hand across his tired eyes. 

"Tidings about what?" 

"I come to tell you that Mr. Moser has just deposited five hundred 
pounds sterling in the bank in your name for Volume Three !" 

Hemda, who had been eavesdropping, slipped out the door and 
ran through the snow without a coat to pay an unceremonious call 
on Professor Gottheil in the archaeology building. She wanted to tell 
him herself. 

That evening, after Hemda had explained for the third time how 
she had done it, Eliezer shook his head and said: 

"I still do not understand !" 

"Well, then, let s just call it a miracle !" 

"Bitti, there are too many miracles in our life. Always someone 
must produce a miracle! How many miracles do you have left? 
Remember, there will probably be six or seven volumes more!" 

Eliezer Ben Yehuda started work on his third volume in high 
spirits, with more inner serenity than he had had in a long time. His 
wife spoke of his "wondrous quietness of soul." 

The old opponents were dying off or giving way. A healthy new 
generation was taking over. 

The success of the Bezalel School of Fine Arts was one example. 

Aaron Aaronsohn was at work on his wild-wheat experiments and 
was gaining recognition among scientific agriculturists. 

Ephraim Hareuveni had already found that plants and flowers 
mentioned in the Bible were still growing in Palestine, except that 
no one recognized them because they now had different names. 

Abraham Zwi had begun his research into ancient Hebrew music 

Tongue of the Prophets 

which would be used as a base in building a contemporary Hebrew 

These were only a few of the brilliant young Jews who were 
forging ahead in their fields, as Ben Yehuda was trying to do in his. 

The lexicographer was happy when he received such reports, but 
once he said : 

"What are all these things compared to the bright future ahead? 
Someday the Jews will be a nation. No one can stop it. The day 
will come when the importance and power of the Jews will be taken 
into consideration in the meeting places of the mighty. When the 
hour arrives for the last judgment of the nations, we shall be among 

Prophetic words, spoken in 1910! 

In these days the Ben Yehudas were living on Abyssinian Street in 
the New City, close by the British and Danish consulates, the Hebrew 
Orphanage, the Abyssinian Church, and the American archaeology 
school, having exchanged a small house with a large garden for a 
large house with a small garden. 

The children liked the new home because it had windows with 
colored glass. 

As they assembled for meals Ben Yehuda sat flanked by his two 
sons. At the other end of the long table sat "the Greeks," as Hemda 
and her daughters were called because they had taken to wearing 
sandals and long flowing robes of white, rose, yellow, or blue, cut 
along classical lines. 

One day Ehud suddenly said: 

"What s the matter now, Mother Worry?" 

Hemda smiled. She had grown accustomed to the nickname her 
own children had given her. Each time they called her by that name 
she would unconsciously put a hand to her forehead and try to 
smooth out the wrinkles. 

It was the old problem again. Volume Three, dedicated to Jacob 
Moser, was out and paid for. Now Volume Four must be financed. 

The children dreaded this phase of the cycle. It always meant that 
one or both of the parents would pack suitcases and go off to foreign 
parts, sometimes not returning for months. 


Hats in Hand 

But this time the Ben Yehudas had a pleasant surprise. The house 
of Langenscheidtsche Verlagsbuchhandlung reported that a final 
audit of costs and receipts on Volume Two had been made and there 
was a small balance to the author s credit. They also offered to 
advance an additional one thousand marks to help with the work on 
- Volume Four. 


Language War 


Young Turks sent Zakki Bey to Palestine as their military governor. 
He was a middle-aged man of education and culture who won im 
mediate respect, especially from the Jews, who whispered that he 
was descended from Jews forcibly converted to Islam during the 
Spanish persecution. Whether or not that was true, he was responsi 
ble for the easing of many harsh restrictions. 

Instead of the old-style bureaucrats, lazy and phlegmatic, new 
young Turkish officials arrived from Constantinople, most of them 
with progressive ideas. Turkish soldiers, instead of looking like 
tramps, now appeared in trim uniforms and with shined shoes. 

Another direct result of the Turkish revolution was that all the 
great powers now turned their eyes toward this part of the world. 
France directed her attention in particular toward Syria and 
Lebanon. Russia ogled Constantinople. England concentrated her 
glances in the direction of the Suez Canal. But all took an intensified 
interest in Palestine. 

Russia built a teachers college at Nazareth to provide instructors 
for the one hundred or more secondary schools she had scattered 
over the country. Even Arab peasants began to speak Russian. 

Language War 

In the German- Jewish schools there was a constant attempt to 
decrease the amount of instruction in Hebrew and increase the use 
of the German language. It was openly stated that this was part of a 
plan to prepare Palestine for eventual German occupation. 

The fear that Ben Yehuda had always had, that Constantinople 
would someday place a ban on the teaching of Hebrew, was com 
pletely dissipated, for the Young Turks imposed only one restriction :; 
there must be instruction in every school in Turkish. If that were 
done, the schools were free to teach anything else they pleased. 

Ben Yehuda s great objective had always been to have Hebrew 
the "language of the curriculum"; that all classes, whatever the 
subject, be conducted in Hebrew. He felt that French, German, 
Russian, English should be taught as "foreign languages." 

In some schools he had already won this fight. In others progress 
was being made. 

And then something very disturbing happened. A number of 
wealthy German Jews had financed the erection of a technical school 
at Haifa called Technikum. While the building had been under 
construction there had been discussions about what the language of 
the curriculum would be. Now the decision had been made. Ger 
man ! Hebrew would not be allowed. 

A delegation which had attended the Zionist Congress at Vienna 
called and announced: "Ben Yehuda, you must get to work with 
your pen! Write editorials ! Stir up public opinion!" 

Ben Yehuda wondered whether the delegation realized what a 
sacrifice they were railing on him to make. It was not just that he 
would have to suspend work on the dictionary. It was not just that 
he had already spent part of the money advanced for the fourth 
volume. If he entered this new war he would become a crusading 
editor again and would irrevocably antagonize the Jews of Berlin 
who had helped him in the past and perhaps might help again. 

But Ben Yehuda did not hesitate long. That same day he sent a 
message to Ephrayim Cohen, director of all German-supported 
schools in Palestine, that he wanted to see him at once. He received 
a curt reply. Mr. Cohen did not care to confer with Mr. Ben 

Angered, Ben Yehuda went to see Mr. Cohen. He was told that 


Tongue of the Prophets 

he was not at home. He tramped the streets and finally found the 
director. The conference took place on a public highway. 

"I demand/ 3 said Ben Yehuda in a voice that had none of its 
habitual softness, "that you go immediately to Berlin and get this 
decision reversed. We will not allow anyone to dictate how the 
schools of Israel are to be run!" 

Ephrayim Cohen tried to calm his opponent: 

"I am sorry, but I have no influence in Berlin." 

Ben Yehuda lost his temper. 

"You can send word to Berlin that Ben Yehuda says blood will 
flow on the steps of the technical school in Haifa if this order is not 
changed at once! Things will happen which the entire world will 
hear about!" 

"But, Mr. Ben Yehuda, would it change your mind if I told you 
that this order comes from the very top?" 

"What do you mean, the very top 3 ?" 

"The German Kaiser has intimated that it would be most agree 
able to him if German were made the official language of all schools 
in Palestine." 

"And who is the Kaiser to us? Why must we sacrifice everything 
to satisfy one of his whims? This is war, Ephrayim Cohen ! War, I 
tell you ! We shall keep the technical school closed if they insist on 
German. No one will enter that building except over my dead body! 
Unless you go to Berlin, the war will start immediately. Decide now !" 

At this point Ephrayim Cohen left Ben Yehuda to carry on his 
tirade to a crowd which had gathered. 

Ephrayim Cohen did not go to Berlin. The war did start im 

No blood was spilled. No shots were fired. But in some ways it 
was as dramatic a war as the one which would be fought years later 
for the existence of the Jewish state. 

Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the scholar, was the commander on his side. 
David Yellin, one of his earliest followers, came back from Vienna 
and took an active part in the fight. 

The Ben Yehuda home on Abyssinian Street became general 
headquarters. Councils of war were held long into the night. 
Teachers from the various schools gathered there for strategy meet- 


Language War 

ings. Jerusalem was tense, knowing that the "rebels" were facing 
powerful opposition this time. 

Finally the teachers voted to abandon their classrooms, close the 
schools, and enlist their pupils in the fight. Ephrayim Cohen was left 
alone in his empty buildings. 

The children and their instructors paraded through the streets 
shouting in Hebrew, "Down with the Germans," and "Hebrew must 
live." A marching song was composed with a martial air and militant 
Hebrew words. 

The revolt spread to Jaffa, then to the settlements. More and 
more schools were closed because pupils and teachers had walked 
out, swearing to return only after the fight had been won. 

From Judea and Galilee came many teachers to confer at GHQ. 

Ephrayim Cohen sent for Dr. Paul Nathan, who had been re 
sponsible for stopping the Berlin contributions to the dictionary. Dr. 
Nathan was having a vacation in Egypt but hurried to Jerusalem for 
conferences. Ben Yehuda sent him. an ultimatum that he had a 
choice between surrender or interminable war. There was no reply. 

Finally the war council authorized Mrs. Ben Yehuda to confer 
with Dr. Nathan, thinking she might be able to hold her temper 
better than anyone else. 

The meeting lasted for hours. Finally Dr. Nathan said: 

"Maybe Mrs. Ben Yehuda ignores the fact that her husband s 
dictionary is in jeopardy. Has she no longer any interest in it?" 

"And if I have, what should I do?" 

"Persuade your husband to withdraw from this fight at once." 

"He would be stoned to death if he turned traitor to the language 
he believes in, and rightly so !" 

"Then woe to the Jews of Palestine and woe to the dictionary!" 

As Hemda walked home she saw a crowd of students around a 
bonfire in the street in front of the German consulate. 

Several hours later the elderly German consul, Dr, Schmidt, ap 
peared at the Ben Yehuda home. There were tears in his eyes as he 
told his close friend, the lexicographer, that Jewish children had 
been burning their German schoolbooks in front of his office and 
had shouted at him when he tried to stop them : 

"We shall never need German schoolbooks again!" 

Tongue of the Prophets 

Dr. Nathan quit Palestine without capitulating. The technical 
school in Haifa remained closed. So did all the other German institu 

Meanwhile, under Ben Yehuda s guidance, "emergency 55 schools 
were opened in which all the instruction was in Hebrew. In some 
wooden boxes had to be used for seats. 

As in any civil war, families were divided; friends fought each 
other; those who tried to remain neutral were criticized by everyone 

About this time there came to Jerusalem the American Ambas 
sador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau, whose son a generation later 
would play such a dominant role in raising funds for Israel. He was 
disturbed at the chaos he found and decided to try to make peace 
between the two camps. 

Instead of calling a meeting, which everyone might have refused 
to attend, he saw to it that members of all factions were invited to a 
banquet to be given in his honor, Among the guests were many 
Christians and Moslems who had taken sides. 

Ambassador Morgenthau, in the address of the evening, spoke of 
the need for love and peace, not only among brothers, but among 
Jews, Christians, and Moslems. 

His oratory was effective. It served as oil to quiet the sea of seeth 
ing emotions. 

After that the agitation gradually subsided. Compromises were 
worked out. Neither side won a clear-cut victory, but the German 
schools eventually were reopened and Hebrew was not dropped from 
the curriculum. 

Ben Yehuda returned to his study, picked up his pen, and resumed 
work on his dictionary, strangely refreshed by his activities as the 
battle-front commander in what Jewish history thereafter would 
refer to as the "War of the Languages." 

Despite the bitterness engendered by the War of the Languages, 
Eliezer Ben Yehuda, when his fourth volume was completed, dedi 
cated it to the committee in Berlin. 

Hemda thought this was carrying fair play too far. But her 


Language War 

husband pointed out that without the help of the Jews in Berlin the 
dictionary never could have progressed this far. 

"Let us give to Caesar what is Caesar s due F 5 

Volume Four was in many respects better than the others. It was 
richer in quotations. One critic said that reading Volume Four was 
like "taking a guided excursion through the ages." 

Volume Four also showed the value of all the traveling the Ben 
Yehudas had done. It did more than the previous three together to 
establish Ben Yehuda s reputation as a thorough scholar. 

The most tangible recognition came from the Zionist Organiza 
tion, which, at the goading of Professor Warburg, voted Ben Yehuda 
an award of one thousand marks per year. This was especially wel 
come, because Baron Rothschild at this time cut his subsidy exactly 
in half as a gesture of his disapproval of Ben Yehuda s "Zionism." 

When last in London Ben Yehuda had found traces in the British 
Museum of many words which would be included in Volume Five, 
but he needed to go back there to complete his philological detective 
work. On the way he wanted to see what language treasures he 
could uncover in Egypt. 

A pattern by now had been established. It was dear that until the 
last word of the last letter of the alphabet was put into type the Ben 
Yehudas would wander from city to city, country to country, search 
ing; Ben Yehuda for words, his wife for financial support. This had 
become so much a routine that any time money was mentioned 
Eliezer would smile and say: 

"That, Bitti, is your department!" 

Sometimes she grew weary of this need of being a one-man, 
twelve-month-per-year, self-perpetuating fund-raising organization, 
but she realized it was the role she was destined to play. 

So they packed for a long trip and headed for Cairo. 

Norman Bentwich, who as a boy had entertained them at his 
father s home in London with a violin concert, was now in the 
service of His Majesty s government in Cairo and helped show them 

Ben Yehuda delivered a lecture in the Arabic Academy of Science, 
pleasing his Arab hosts by telling them of the close relationship be 
tween their language and his, and how many words of their own, 


Tongue of the Prophets 

which they thought purely Arabic, had been "borrowed" from 

While Eliezer secluded himself with manuscripts and books in the 
libraries and museums, Hemda began traveling along what she 
sometimes, in pessimistic moods, called her Via Dolorosa, seeking 
contributions to the dictionary. 

When they left Cairo, Hemda carried with her as souvenirs of 
their visit a small glass bowl which had been buried in Egyptian 
sands for three thousand years and, as a more tangible evidence of 
the good will of Egyptian Jews, a check for five thousand francs to 
help finance Volume Five, 

The morning after they arrived in London, Ben Yehuda went 
directly to the British Museum, saying he would not be back until 
late afternoon. But he returned to the hotel room in little more than 
an hour. 

Hemda realized as he walked through the door that something 
was wrong. She could tell by the sag of his shoulders. He was like a 
small boy who needs to be mothered and told that whatever it was 
that had happened was not really important. 

Obviously trying to be casual about it, he said: 

"Does it seem strange to you, Bitti, that my dictionary is not in the 
library of the British Museum?" 

"Impossible, Eliezer!" 

"But it is so, nevertheless. I searched for a whole hour in the files 
and there is no listing of it !" 

"Then you must look again, because it is surely there!" 

So, as obedient as a small child, the great lexicographer picked 
up his hat and went back to the museum. 

That evening when he returned his shoulders were straight again 
and his eyes sparkled with boyish happiness. 

"You were right, Bitti! It is there! But can you imagine how 
stupid! It s listed under the name of Dr. Yahuda!" 

(Abraham Shalom Yahuda had been secretary of the Berlin spon 
soring committee.) 

When they left for home Hemda was full of good spirits over 
having raised enough money to put out Volume Five. Her husband 
was bubbling with excitement because in the library at Oxford he 


Language War 

had got on the trail of some words which had been evading him for 

A friend arranged for them to travel from Liverpool to Port Said 
on a luxury ship at a greatly reduced rate. It was the first time in 
their lives that either of them had ever gone first-class. 

While Ben Yehuda was working on Volume Five a distinguished 
visitor arrived in Jerusalem from America, Julius Rosenwald, who 
had helped found an experimental station at Athlit and had made 
possible Aaronsohn s scientific work in agriculture. He promised to 
write out a check for five hundred pounds sterling to put out the 
sixth volume of the dictionary. 

So it was that as Ben Yehuda worked on Volume Five he was in 
the most serene mood of his entire life. They could look forward now 
to at least a short period of calm and peace. For the next two years, 
anyway, they would not have to pack bags, catch trains and boats, 
and travel from place to place, explaining, pleading,^ begging. 
Hemda could devote her energies to her family, her writing, her 
home. Eliezer could work in his study without interruption. 

For these reasons Ben Yehuda changed the motto which hung 
over his desk. He took down the words: 


In the place of that slogan, which had been driving him for so 
many years, he hung up these words: 







month of Tammuz, in the summer of the Christian year 1914. It 
was dedicated to the Jews of London. 

After the last page had gone to the printer the Ben Yehudas made 
plans for a vacation in Lebanon. 

The children were sent to Petach Tikvah. The parents packed a 
trunk and went to Haifa to board a ship for Beirut. In the seaport 
city they found the streets full of excitement. 

"What is this all about?" Ben Yehuda asked a passer-by. 

"Are you joking? Have you not heard of the war?" 

"War? What war?" 

"Germany asks Belgium to let her through to get at France ! Eng 
land declares war on Germany and Austria!" 

The Ben Yehudas had brought with them a letter of credit for 
five hundred francs to finance their holiday. They, pushed their way 
through the crowds at the Anglo-Palestine Bank to draw part of the 
money. But the bank was closed. Someone in the crowd said there 
was a moratorium. 

They counted their money and found they had just enough to get 



home. They sailed from Haifa on the last ship going south. In Jaffa 
the streets were full of Arab demonstrators. Some were running 
around with drawn swords, shouting: 

"Our blades thirst for blood! God will protect the Sultan!" 

Army officers stood in doorways watching and smiling. The uni 
forms of the men with the swords were so immaculate, their red 
fezzes so new-looking, their faces so healthy and glowing that Ben 
Yehuda had a suspicion, but it was not until much later that it was 
confirmed. The men with the swords shouting about the glory of the 
Sultan were not Turks, not Arabs, but German provocateurs. 

They found, when they reached Jerusalem, that that city was also 
in a nervous state. Turkey had not yet joined in the war, but the 
foreigners were worried. Especially the British and French. 

News from the battlefields those first few weeks was bad. Dark 
clouds settled over Israel. The Jews of Palestine were isolated from 
the rest of the world. Few ships touched these shores any more. No 
money flowed in. Shortages of necessary goods were made worse by 
hoarding. Sugar, rice, kerosene could no longer be bought. Prices 
rose astronomically. 

Ben Yehuda paced his study, making no pretense at work on Vol 
ume Six. His dream, which had just been emerging from the realm 
of impossibility into a state of probability, was now threatened, he 
felt, with complete annihilation. 

Many came to him to argue, to listen, to ask his opinions and ad 
vice. He told them all honestly how he felt. If Turkey entered,the 
war on the side of Germany, and if Germany were defeated, then 
the Allies, without a doubt, would carve the Ottoman Empire into 
small pieces, and there would be a chance of the Jews asking for and 
receiving Palestine as their own. 

If Turkey joined the Allies, and if the Allies won, then out of 
gratitude to Turkey the Allies would, of course, allow her to keep all 
the territory she now possessed, and the hope of a free Israel wotdd 

be as dim as ever. % 

But, they would argue, what if Turkey should join the Allies and 

Germany should win? - - - u * 

That possibility Ben Yehuda would always dismiss, insisting ttat 
ultimate victory was bound to go to the Allies. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

So he would conclude, they must pray that Turkey would oppose 
the Allies but that the Allies eventually would win. It would mean 
horrible days for them all. 

This reasoning was very unpalatable for the German Jews, many 
of whom were so imbued with German nationalism that they were 
positive the Kaiser s armies could never be defeated and even 
worked openly for a German victory. 

The situation was made still more complex by the attitude of the 
Russian Jews, who hated the czarist regime so much for its anti- 
Semitism that they opposed anything Russia did. And now Russia 
had gone to war on the side of England and France ! 

In this period Ben Avi ran the newspaper alone. He was young 
and enthusiastic. He also was reckless. He wrote as he thought and 
said what he pleased, ignoring the consequences. His fearlessness in 
arguing for an Allied victory won him many new friends. When he 
went down the street he was quickly surrounded by both Jews and 
Arabs who wanted to hear his opinions. But he also made enemies 
who soon would be shouting, literally, for his life. 

Then came the news that Turkey had thrown in her lot with Ger 

This created a state of near panic in Jerusalem. Ben Yehuda and 
his son had to make a quick decision about their paper. If they con 
tinued publication they would have to support Turkey in everything 
they wrote. If they stopped publication it would be tantamount to 
an announcement that they did not wish to write pro-Turkish arti 
cles and therefore were traitors to the country whose citizenship they 
held. In the Ottoman Empire, as in most other countries, death was 
the punishment for traitors. 

They tried to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of this situation by 
printing an announcement that the lack of funds and shortage of 
newsprint forced them to close down the paper. 

Then a German, Beck Bey, arrived to take over the running of 
Jerusalem. Zakki Bey, the Turkish governor and the Jews friend, 
lost most of his authority. Each day new edicts were issued. Jewish 
homes were searched for Hebrew flags, and woe to him in whose 
house one was found ! The death penalty was imposed on Jews in 
possession of stamps issued by the Jewish National Fund. 



Up to now the Ben Yehuda home had not been ransacked, but 
Hemda was terrified that if it ever were, some stupid or evil officer 
might confiscate the manuscript and notes for the remaining volumes 
of the dictionary, so she took them to the American consul, who as 
sured her that in his care they would be as safe as if in a vault in 
New York. 

The fact that no funds were arriving from abroad left those Jews 
who had been supported by foreign charity in a disastrous situation. 
Their plight was relieved temporarily by the arrival of Maurice 
Wertheim, son-in-law of Henry Morgenthau, who came with fifty 
thousand dollars in gold to be distributed among the various Jewish 
organizations for the relief of their members. 

A meeting of the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem was held, but a vio 
lent argument broke out as to the proportion of the fifty thousand 
dollars each group should get. Finally Wertheim, with Solomon-like 
inspiration, picked up the suitcase of gold, went into an adjoining 
room, locked the door from the inside, and shouted: 

"I shall not come out until you gentlemen announce through the 
keyhole that you have reached a friendly decision!" 

An agreement was quickly arrived at. 

Before he left, Wertheim visited Ben Yehuda and tried to encour 
age him to get busy again on his dictionary. Later, on his return to 
the United States, he eulogized Ben Yehuda and his work in his re 
port to American Jews. 

When the forests which Jewish settlers had planted at Petach 
Tikvah and Hedera, tree by tree, patiently, lovingly, were ordered 
cut down by Turkish authorities, Ben Yehuda cried aloud with rage. 
When the orange groves of the settlements were seized he refused to 
come any more to his meals. 

Sometimes he would sit for hours with his head in his hands, si 
lently mourning. For whole days he went without food. Oftea in. 
the middle of the night he would get up and pace for an hour or 

Finally his condition worried Hemda so much that she suggested 
it might be well for them to try to get to America. There he could 
work on his dictionary in peace. What she did not add was her con- 


Tongue of the Prophets 

viction that time was running out. His frail body could not stand 
many more crises. There were four or five volumes of the dictionary 
left to be done. If he were to finish them, there was no time to lose. 
But instead of bringing up that argument she said: 

"Eliezer, you have often told me that someone should explain this 
whole situation to the Jews of America and make them see the im 
portance of an Allied victory to the future of the Jews. If you were to 
go to America you could do that!" 

But nothing she said seemed to have any effect. Desert Israel? Not 
unless they drove him away at the point of a gun ! 

In desperation Hemda arranged a meeting which she kept secret 
from her husband. His old friend, David Yellin, was there and many 
others who, Hemda knew, were concerned about him. She had 
heard that an Italian ship was due to stop at Jaffa in a few days. If 
they hurried they might make it. 

Yellin and the others agreed to help, so they held another meeting 
and asked Ben Yehuda to be present. Without telling him of 
Hemda s part in the plot, they announced their opinion that he 
would serve Israel better by going to America as a propagandist 
than merely by dying for Israel on Israeli soil. 

"It will not be easy to change the minds of many of our American 
brothers/ someone said. "A lot of American Jews are eager to settle 
old accounts with Russia. You must go over, Ben Yehuda, and tell 
them it is their duty to Israel to forget their feelings toward Russia 
and support the Allies! 3 

The next day a number of Jewish leaders met at Tel Aviv and 
drew up a document addressed to the Jews of America, urging their 
support of the Allies. Ben Yehuda was asked to undertake the mis 
sion of delivering the communication. 

This ended his wavering. This gave a raison d etre to his trip. So 
he started packing. , 

All the provisions stored up in the Ben Yehuda home for an 
emergency were distributed to the needy. Moshe Nissim, who had 
been serving as Ben Yehuda s secretary, was given keys to all thirteen 
rooms in the house and was instructed to put on the lights each night 
and otherwise conduct the affairs of the household as if they were all 
there. If anyone discovered they were gone, he was to say they had 



left for one of the settlements to help fight the plague of locusts 
which, ironically, had settled on Palestine at almost the same time as 
the plague of war. 

Ehud was in Germany studying agriculture. Yemeemah was liv 
ing with her husband in Canada. Ben Avi decided he would en 
danger his parents safety if he tried to go with them; he would make 
an attempt later. That left just the three small children, Dola, Ada, 
and Zaza, who were fifteen, thirteen, and ten. 

The Ben Yehudas took no baggage except a few clothes for the 
girls. They left at night. They were certain everything had been ar 
ranged so secretly that no one knew of their plans. 

But they were unfortunately not aware of the intensity of the en 
mity that some of their fellow Jews bore them. The scars of the War 
of the Languages had not yet healed, for it later turned out that it 
was several German Jews who had notified Turkish officials of their 

They were already in the harbor of Jaffa on a barge which was to 
take them out to the Italian ship when the military commander of 
the port presented them with an order to return to Jerusalem. 

The small daughters cried all the way home. 

When they reached Jerusalem they were not taken into custody, 
and EEezer cheered up a little. Hemda advised him to relax | 
wait. Somehow they would still get to America. 

But it was not easy for anyone to relax in Jerusalem in those days. 
All Palestine was like an armed camp. The Turks were preparing to 
attack the British in Egypt in order to get control of the Suez Canal. 
Arrests were being made every day, and what happened to those ar 
rested no one dared inquire. 

Hemda tried to keep from Eliezer the news that German officers 
in the Turkish army were demanding that Ben Avi be executed as a 
traitor and that Eliezer himself be sent to Anatolia, which she knew 
for him would be worse than death. 

She did not hide from him the news that some of his Arab friends 
had agreed to go to the authorities with an appeal that he, his wife, 
and small children be allowed to quit the country. 

By some freak of luck it worked. Word came back that EKezer, 
Hemda, Ada, Dola, and Zaza Ben Yehuda were granted the right to 


Tongue of the Prophets 

leave Jaffa by ship. The irony of it was that now there were no ships 
leaving Jaffa. 

But one day the American consul told Hemda that as long as they 
had an official permit he would guarantee that they would be taken 
aboard the U.S.S. Tennessee when the warship arrived in Jaffa on 
Christmas Day to evacuate stranded Americans. 

Although they did have the permit, the Ben Yehudas went 
through the same precautions again. Once more they gave Moshe 
Nissim the thirteen keys and instructions to keep the lights burning. 

In Jaffa they spent Christmas Eve lying with other refugees on the 
floor of a small German hotel. In the morning, with the others, they 
went to the office of the military commander of Jaffa to have their 
passports stamped, 

Ben Yehuda s was returned with Turkish handwriting scrawled 
on one of the blank pages: 



Hemda took the passport to the American consul, who exploded: 
"Incredible! I shall insist they allow you to leave!" 
But the U.S.S. Tennessee sailed on Christmas Day without the 
Ben Yehudas. 

Back on Abyssinian Street, for the second time they unlocked 
doors which they had expected would remain closed for years. 
For two nerve-torturing months they waited again. 
Finally their old friend, Zakki Bey, persuaded Jemal Pasha, com 
mander in chief of the Turkish army in Palestine, to write a request 
to the military commander at Jaffa to allow the Ben Yehudas to 

As Zakki Bey gave them the document he whispered: 
"I beg you, do not let the Gennans hear about this !" 
So for the third time they said their good-bys, locked the doors, 
gave the same old instructions, and departed with little baggage at 
4 A.M. They took a carriage to Jaffa and hoped that no "enemy" 
would see them. 



By this time Eliezer was reconciled to the failure of the mission 
with which the Jews of Tel Aviv had entrusted him. He also seemed 
reconciled to packing up, traveling to Jaffa, being turned back, then 
waiting again. But this time it was different. 

They found a Greek cargo boat which was going to Alexandria. 
The owner agreed to transport them for a reasonable fee.^ They 
would sail as soon as he finished loading his cargo of Palestinian or 
anges. Probably late in the evening. 

It was Hemda who had the foresight to advise two of Ben Ye 
huda s high-placed Arab friends of their sailing plans. And the two 
Arabs were kind enough to invite Hassan Beck, military commander 
of the port, to dinner that night. They took him to a place a con 
siderable distance out of town. They ordered an elaborate meal with 
plenty to drink. They saw to it that the meal lasted until a late hour, 
hoping that by then the little Greek vessel would have sailed away 
with its oranges and its Ben Yehudas. 

Meanwhile the family from Jerusalem and the skipper became 
good friends. He assured them that the minute they set foot on his 
Idecks they were "as good as on Greek soil." 

"That may be the law," Hemda said nervously, "but I wonder 
how well you know the Turks." 

The owner of the oranges, a Jew named Aboujeben, was so much 
more concerned about the Ben Yehudas than he was about getting 
the fruit to its destination that before the ship was more than half 
loaded he begged the skipper to leave the rest of the cargo and sail 

"I should gladly lose a million oranges," he said dramatically, 
"than that Ben Yehuda should fall into the hands of the Turks 

again !" 

So they sailed out onto the Mediterranean, from the same port to 
which Eliezer had come nearly thirty-four years ago as a boy with a 
dream; the same port to which he had brought Hemda nearly 
twenty-three years ago as his child bride. 

The dream had not yet been fulfilled. 

But half a dictionary had been written and the battle to revive a 
dead language had been more than half won. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

The Greek vessel with half a cargo of oranges and five eighths of 
the Ben Yehuda family made Alexandria by the next morning. 

A Jewish friend in the Anglo-Palestine Bank in Jerusalem had 
given Eliezer a check for five thousand French francs out of the ac 
count which Julius Rosenwald had established for the dictionary. By 
good fortune Z. D. Levontin, the Palestine banker, was in Alexan 
dria when the Ben Yehudas arrived and helped them get the checlc 
cashed. Hemda was annoyed that it took a full week, but it turned 
out to be a stroke of luck that it did. 

They had all been worried about Ben Avi, who was on the Ger 
mans 3 black list and who had stayed behind in Jerusalem. 

Now just as they left the bank and were walking in the direction 
of the water front, they saw, coming toward them, Ben Avi and his 
wife! They greeted each other affectionately. The handsome young 
son was full of stories about how Zakki Bey, their friend, had also 
helped get him out. 

Eliezer and Hemda had already made arrangements to sail on an 
other Greek boat for Peiraeus. It took little talk to persuade Ben Avi 
and his wife to join them. 

The ship which took them from Peiraeus to New York stopped on 
the way at Naples. There was excitement in Naples, for on that day 
Italy had entered the war on the side of the Allies. 

When Eliezer heard the news he was radiant. 

"This will bring an Allied victory and freedom for Israel one step 

It took two weeks for the small ship to cross the Atlantic. Halfway 
across Eliezer began to get nervous about the document still pinned 
in the lining of his coat. He talked to Hemda about it as he sat in a 
deck chair with a blanket bundled around him. 

"I am sure, Bitti," he said, "that I am not the right man for 
America. I know so many languages, yet I am not able to speak 
English properly. The Jews over there will want to talk Yiddish, and 
Yiddish I shall refuse to speak. None of them will understand He 
brew, and Hebrew I shall insist on speaking. I will be small man 
among giants, BittiF 9 

At the dock they were greeted by a brother whom Eliezer had not 
seen for forty-one years. They had called him Hayim Maeer Perl- 



man when he was a boy in Luzhky, Lithuania. Then the family 
Seydel had adopted him to save him from Russian military service, 
and he had become Hayim Maeer Seydel. When he emigrated to 
America he changed his first name to Jacob. 

It was a strange scene as they met. They greeted each other as 
strangers, this frightened little man with the sharp-pointed beard 
and the sad eyes, and his own brother, a self-assured, prosperous 
American businessman. 

Jacob Seydel loaded them all into his automobile, which Hemda 
said was the biggest automobile she had ever seen. He drove them 
through what Dola called "a very large garden" with lakes and 
bridges, which he said was called Central Park. 

On the way he said to Eliezer: "Do you remember the time we 
took the herring to the river to wash them and dropped them in? I 
wonder if Mother ever found out that I was the one who lost them 
and not you?" 

At the brother s home a delegation of Zionists was waiting to greet 
the man from Jerusalem. It was obvious that many of his well- 
wishers had expected to meet a dynamic personality who would tell 
dramatic stories about the struggles he had been through. Instead, 
here was a short, frail, sad-looking man who reminded some of 
them of a deer that had been cornered by hunters. He answered 
many of their questions with a motion of his head or a simple "yes" 
or "no."^ 

A few days later Ben Yehuda was told of plans for a reception for 
him. He was adamant in his refusal to have any part in it. 

"I am an exile," he replied intently. "I left my country in blood 
and fire. This is not the time for receptions and festivities!" 

They argued with him. A large hall had been rented. Tickets had 
been printed. Announcements had been sent to the newspapers. Eli 
ezer kept shaking his head. Finally a member of the delegation said 
the reception was necessary to promote interest in Zionism, his ^dic 
tionary, and the war. Reluctantly he agreed to attend "as long as 
there are not too many people present." 

The night of the reception Hemda had difpculty forcing Eliezer 
to keep his promise. On the way to the hall she whispered to 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"You must try to cheer up, Eliezer ! You look as if you were going 
to a funeral instead of to a reception in your honor!" 

A crowd was milling around outside the hall. This frightened the 
mild little man from Jerusalem. He begged Hemda to permit him to 
go home. 

Finally they reached the entrance, but an Irish policeman who 
seemed at least twice Eliezer s height barred the way. 

"No more in here! No more! How many times do I have to tell 
you people? No more in here !" 

Obediently Eliezer turned around and started to walk away, look 
ing relieved. 

"But, officer, 55 Hemda said, "this man is Ben Yehuda! 5 

"I don t care if he s President of the United States ! I ve got me 
orders ! This here hall s full to capacity, see? Not one more person 
goes in until someone comes out! Get me, lady? 55 

Hemda finally succeeded in having a message sent to those inside 
and two people left the hall so the Ben Yehudas could enter. 

The ovation he received frightened the guest of honor. But when 
it came time for him to speak, his courage returned a little and he 
made a plea for Israel and the Allies which those who understood 
Hebrew found convincing. 

A few days later Ben Yehuda was invited to be the guest of honor 
at the Zionist convention in Boston. He declined, explaining, as he 
had done so many times before, that he would never attend a Zionist 
meeting anywhere unless it were conducted in Hebrew. 

"But one of the biggest Zionists in America, Louis D. Brandeis, 
says it is necessary for you to come. 53 

Eliezer finally agreed on a compromise. He would not go to this 
convention, but he would have a private interview with Brandeis. 

When he returned from the session Hemda asked him what he 
had said to "the famous lawyer." 

"I told him about Israel." 

"What else, Eliezer?" 

"I told him that the Jews of America must forget their feelings 
about Russia and work for the victory of England. 55 

"And what did he say? 55 



"He said nothing. That man is a sphinx! He listened to me po 
litely. Then he was silent. He just said *Au revoir when I left." 

After a pause he added : "I am afraid my mission has failed, Bitti. 
I do not understand these Americans! 5 

Two or three days later he received an invitation to attend a con 
ference of officers of the Federation of American Zionists. He had 
had some rest now and had regained a little of his old enthusiasm. 
He decided that this was his opportunity to deliver the message from 
Tel Aviv and try to convince the leaders of American Jewry that 
they must play a vital role in the wan 

He was as nervous as a small boy giving his first recitation at 
school as he and his wife were led into the conference room. Seven 
distinguished-looking men sat around a table. Brandeis, who in a 
few months would become the first Jew ever appointed to the Su 
preme Court, was presiding. The others were introduced as Dr. Ste 
phen S. Wise, Dr. Shemarya Levin, Dr. Harry Friedenwald, E. 
Lewin-Epstein, Louis Lipsky, and Jacob de Haas. 

The chairman said : 

"Mr. Ben Yehuda, will you please tell these gentlemen just what 
you told me the other day?" 

Standing at the head of the table looking down into the seven 
faces, Ben Yehuda felt, he later told his wife, as if he were facing a 
court-martial. But as he began to talk he lost his nervousness. He be 
came excited. His eyes, Hemda thought, were as they used to be 
when he was younger. They were bright, full of excitement. 

He read them the message from Tel Aviv, then said: 

"Israel demands from the Zionists of America and from Jews 
everywhere that they stand up like one man on the side of the Allies 
in this war and forget all other feelings. 

"If the Germans should win . . ." 

He went on to picture Israel s fate as he saw it under German or 
continued Turkish rule. 

In concluding he said with deep intensity: 

"We Jews must show ourselves worthy to be entrusted with our 
own destiny!" 

Then he sat down. There was a dead silence. Finally Brandeis 
took his hand and thanked him. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

At that moment Ben Yehuda lost his patience. He jumped to his 
feet and, facing the chairman, said: 

"You have heard from me. Now I should like to hear from you. 
What is your opinion? What are you going to do?" 

Brandeis smiled. 

"Mr. Ben Yehuda, we asked you to come here to talk to us, not 
to have us talk to you. 9 

A few minutes later Mr. and Mrs. Ben Yehuda were on an ele 
vated train, accompanied by a young man who had been sent to 
show them the way home. 

When they were finally alone, Eliezer opened the floodgates and 
let his pent-up feelings pour out. 

"This proves, Bitti, what I tried to say on the ship. I am not the 
right man. I am not suited to America. Over here they need a 
powerful speaker who pounds the table and shouts until his throat 
bursts. I am a failure here, Bitti. I wish I had never come!" 

Three days later, however, newspapers carried the story that the 
Federation of American Zionists had declared itself for the Allies. 

"So, Eliezer, you have won another fight, see?" his wife said to 
him. "You are always so impatient ! I hope all the battles you have 
in the future will be as easy as this one ! You should be proud and 
happy. I am sure your friends in Tel Aviv will be grateful to you. 
Now you can say that your mission was successfully accomplished." 

What Eliezer did not know was that before he spoke to them, the 
members of the Zionist executive committee had been bitterly 
divided. At least one of the seven men he addressed had been of the 
same opinion as many of the German Jews in Palestine: that their 
hope lay with Germany. Several others had felt that no stand of any 
kind should be taken. His speech, even though he had not pounded 
the table, had had something to do with deciding the issue. 

Maurice Wertheim, who had brought the fifty thousand dollars in 
gold to Jerusalem, came to see the Ben Yehudas soon after their ar 
rival, and Hemda took him aside to tell him that the money from 
the check they had cashed in Alexandria was almost gone. They 
were embarrassed about living on the generosity of Eliezer s brother. 

If Mr. Wertheim could give her a list of wealthy American Jews 
who might be interested in sponsoring a volume of the dictionary, 



she would be glad, she said, to "go from door to door," as she had 
so often done in the past, to explain the situation and ask for their 

"It would help, 3 she said timidly, "if you could give me a letter 
of introduction. 5 

Wertheim laughed. 

"You are in New York now, my dear, not Jerusalem. We will ar 
range these matters. You must be with your husband and children. 
My wife has already obtained a small house for you. Now we must 
find schools for your daughters. But everything will be arranged so 
your brilliant husband can work in peace. We want him to know 
that we appreciate over here what he has done and what he will con 
tinue to do, God willing." 

It was through the interest of Maurice Wertheim that his father, 
Jacob, joined with Jacob Schiff, Felix Warburg, Julius Rosenwald, 
and Herbert Lehman to form a small committee to "sponsor" Ben 
Yehuda in America. 

One of the committee s first decisions was to ask the State Depart 
ment in Washington to request Ambassador Morgenthau in Con 
stantinople to get the manuscripts and notes which Hemda had left 
with the American consul in Jerusalem and have them shipped to* 
New York. 

The consul sent back word, however, that, conditions being what 
they were in Palestine, it was doubtful if the papers could be trans 
ported safely from Jerusalem to Jaffa. Ben Yehuda agreed that they 
should be left in Jerusalem. 

Professor Gottheil, the archaeologist whose office was across the 
street from the Ben Yehuda home on Abyssinian Street, procured a 
special room in the New York Public Library in which the man from 
Jerusalem could work without interruption. 

Jacob Schiff arranged with the library s Semitic department for 
Ben Yehuda to be supplied with all the books he needed. 

So the lexicographer went back to work. From nine until six he 
locked himself in the private room in the great stone building at 
Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street and began to cover thousands 
of fresh pieces of paper with notes for subsequent volumes of his dic 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Several times he went to Washington to consult books and manu 
scripts in the Library of Congress. 

One day when he returned from Washington, Hemda said: 

"While you were gone I heard that your old friend Tshashnikov 
is now here in the United States. He sent word in a roundabout way 
that if there is anything you need he stands ready to help you. Would 
you like to see him, or " 

Eliezer waved aside the suggestion and went back to the book he 
was reading. Hemda did not bring up the subject again. 

The war years for Ben Yehuda were extremely productive. Al 
though divorced from his notes in Jerusalem, he was able in the 
United States to complete most of the research for the remaining 
letters of the alphabet. 





gan to be cloaked with the garments of reality. 

It was a year filled with events which would change the history of 
mankind, and most of them had special significance for the man 
from Jerusalem, who now lived for three things: 

To complete his dictionary. 

To see Israel reincarnated. 

To return home from exile and set foot on the free soil of his own 
land before he died. 

The first excitement of 1917 was the entry of the United States 
into the war. 

Perhaps the Federation of American Zionists had little to do with 
the decision. Perhaps all the Jews in America combined had played 
no greater role than any other group in bringing about the climate" 
of opinion which made the move possible. Yet Eliezer Ben Yehuda 
felt a personal triumph when the news was shouted in the streets on 
that chilly day in April. 

"Now, Bitti, my mission really has been accomplished I" 

Another excitement was the departure of several thousand Jewish 


Tongue of the Prophets 

soldiers who had volunteered for service in all- Jewish battalions. Ben 
Yehuda was invited to help send them off. The committee in charge 
gave him an armband, and there were Hebrew letters on it. It was 
one of the few souvenirs he ever kept. 

Then there was the bright day an organization of Jewish women 
called Hadassah sent a contingent of doctors and nurses to the battle 
front. Eliezer cried, watching them go. 

But the day which Ben Yehuda said no Jew in the world should 
ever forget was November 2, 1917. 

It was on November 2 that the government of Great Britain came 
to the support of those Jews scattered around the world who wanted 
Palestine proclaimed the homeland of the Hebrew people. 

The Balfour Declaration, history would call it. And Ben Yehuda 
called it "our charter of freedom." 

It was only a statement of policy on the part of the government 
in London. It could be repudiated by any subsequent British gov 
ernment, as would actually happen many years later. It could be ig 
nored by other Allies. It was no ironclad guarantee of anything. It 
was only a few sentences on a piece of white paper. But Zionists the 
world over, on that November day, rejoiced as they had seldom re 
joiced before. 

If Eliezer Ben Yehuda was more excited than the rest, it was un~ 
iderstandable. This, finally, was something which gave substance to 
the dream. This was what he had been struggling for all these years 
with his voice and his pen. He had said all along that it was England 
to whom the Jews should look for their freedom. He had been ridi 
culed in Jerusalem for saying it. The German Jews had told him it 
could never happen. There had been skeptics even here in New 

But now it had happened ! It was there for anyone to read in the 
newspapers being sold in the streets. 

"His Majesty s Government view with favour the establishment in 
Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their 
best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this objective. . . ." 

At Carnegie Hall there was a celebration. Justice Brandeis pre 
sided. The men of the executive committee were there. One of them 
grasped Ben Yehuda s hand and said: 



"I was against you that day you spoke to us. I was sure you were 
wrong. Now I congratulate you on having been so right!" 

The flag of Israel flew that evening in Carnegie Hall, and Eliezer 
Ben Yehuda was as happy as a young groom. 

December 1 1 was another day in 1917 which Eliezer Ben Yehuda 
never forgot. That was the day General Edmund Allenby led his 
British soldiers through the gates of Jerusalem, driving out the Turks 
who for more than four hundred years had kept the Holy City under 
heel. Eliezer was so excited when he ran home with the news that he 
could hardly talk. 

"Think, Bitti, how many centuries it has been since our city was 
free! And there were Jewish soldiers with Allenby! Some of that 
Jewish Legion we helped send off!" 

Another dream came true while Ben Yehuda was still in America 
when the cornerstone was laid on Mount Scopus for what some peo 
ple would someday consider the greatest university anywhere in the 
Middle East. 

"How often have I talked and written about this, Bitti! Remem 
ber? Now it is going to happen. Think of it ! We shall be able to 
stand in our streets and look up and see it. Great scholars will gather 
th^re, and it will be the headquarters for the Academy of Hebrew 
which will take over my work on the language and will see that He 
brew is kept beautiful and pure!" 

The fact that Ben Yehuda assumed that the language of the cur 
riculum would be Hebrew was an indication of how much progress 
had been made. The War of the Languages was over and won. 

It was in 1917 that Hemda and Eliezer Ben Yehuda celebrated 
their silver wedding anniversary. Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Wertheim 
gave a dinner party for them. As a surprise Ben Yehuda presented 
his wife with a bulky manuscript, explaining to her and to the others 
around the table: 

"We often hear about the Greek and Roman classics. Even 
schoolboys know them by name. Since I came to America I have 
been working, without even Hemda knowing it, on the Hebrew 
classics, for we have classics too ! 

"I am not through yet. When I finish there will be eight volumes 
of about three hundred pages each. In these books there will be one 


Tongue of the Prophets 

hundred and forty Hebrew classics of the post-biblical period. I am 
calling this new work Fathers of the Hebrew Language. It is the best 
gift I could think of for my wife on this occasion." 

Later such scholars as Professor Louis Ginsberg called this new 
Ben Yehuda undertaking a work of great significance, equal to that 
of the dictionary. 

When Hemda got home that night and began to look over the 
manuscript, she found a note attached to it in her husband s delicate 
handwriting. It read: 

"All that I have done in my life, all that I possess, has been 
achieved through your assistance and consequently belongs to you." 

The only thing that marred the happiness of 1917 for the Ben Ye 
huda family was Eliezer s impatience to get home. He continued to 
work, but each evening when he came home from the library he 
would say: 

"Bitti, don t you think that tomorrow, maybe, we should see some 
of our influential friends and get them to inquire about the possi 
bility of our going?" 

He was vaguely aware that great battles were still being fought in 
western Europe, but he understood little about the complexities of 
wartime travel; the necessity of waiting for the end of hostilities be 
fore starting. 

One evening in November of the next year the Ben Yehudas went 
to hear Enrico Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera House. There 
they learned that an armistice had been signed ! The war in Europe 
was over! 

As the audience made the opera house echo with cheers and 
shouting, the entire cast appeared on the stage. Flags of all the Allies 
were displayed. The orchestra stood up and began to play the na 
tional anthem. 

Turning to his wife, Eliezer Ben Yehuda whispered : 

"Bitti, this means we can go home, doesn t it?" 

Friends urged that they wait until ocean travel was safer and con 
ditions in Palestine were more settled. 

"I can wait no longer!" Ben Yehuda replied. 

With the help of Julius Rosenwald and friends in the British Em- 
bossy, they obtained the necessary documents. 



Toward the end of February 1919 a farewell dinner was given at 
ChalifFs in New York by the Histadruth Ivrith, an organization for 
the promotion of Hebrew culture, and a specially formed Ben Ye 
huda Jubilee Committee. In the name of the Jews of America, the 
treasurer, Israel Matz, presented Ben Yehuda with a check for ten 
thousand dollars to be used to build a house in Jerusalem in which 
he could work peacefully the remaining years of his life. 

In his speech of thanks the lexicographer said: 

"Years ago my wife suggested we try to set aside a little money 
occasionally so we could build a house someday. I always told her 
that whatever money we had must go into the dictionary. Once I 
said that if we were successful in helping to build a nation for our 
people, someday our people might help build a house for us, but that 
otherwise we would never have one. But now we shall !" 

The first available passenger ship was reserved for diplomats and 
went off without the Ben Yehudas, despite all the pressure that was 
applied, although by an odd twist Ben Avi went on it. He was going 
to Versailles to represent the Zionist Organization of America at the 
peace conference and had semi-official status. 

The rest of the family sailed on the next ship. The same brother 
who had been, at the pier when they arrived was at the pier when 
they left, but this time there were hundreds of other well-wishers. 

A large Jewish flag was presented to Ben Yehuda by the Zionist 
Organization with a request that it be flown from the house he was 
going to build. 

The voyage was pleasant, the sea was calm, the company was 
strange. The Ben Yehudas were the only Jews on board. 

The Americans and Britishers sang many of their own war songs. 

Ben Yehuda did nothing to hide his pride when one of his daugh 
ters, without even a suggestion from him, said to a group around 
the piano one evening: 

"We also have a country, and a language, and songs. Would you 
like to hear some of them?" 

All went well until they landed at Naples and looked for trans 
portation the rest of the way. 

No ships to Palestine. Np ships to Egypt. They almost lived in the 

Tongue of the Prophets 

Cook s travel agency. That was how they had the coincidental meet 
ing with the handsome young man who was also standing in line 
waiting to ask questions about ships. 

"But, Ben Avi, what are you doing here? You are supposed to be 
in Versailles!" 

After he had affectionately thrown his arms around various mem 
bers of the family he explained. In Paris there had been a fight over 
his right to go to Versailles. The delegation from Russia insisted the 
people in New York had had no right to send him. It was another 
chapter in the old Ussishkin-Ben Yehuda feud. 

The Ben Yehudas finally reached Alexandria on a British troop 
ship. Then they crossed the desert in a sleeping car, a new sensation 
and the first evidence of the British occupation. 

At the Palestinian frontier they met Sir Ronald Storrs, the British 
governor of Jerusalem, who gave Ben Yehuda one of the most heart 
warming moments of his life by walking up with outstretched hand 
and saying with a broad smile on his face: 

"Shalom alechem [Peace be unto you] !" 

Ben Yehuda answered with a volley of excited Hebrew, but the 
governor held up his hand and laughed. 

"Sorry, but those two words are all the Hebrew I know !" 

Still, they were enough to bring tears of happiness into Eliezer s 
eyes. He turned to his wife and in a voice heavy with emotion said : 

"Bitti, did you hear? I have often wondered whether I would live 
to see my dream come true. The Turks are gone. The British are 
here in their place. A distinguished gentleman taking over from a ty 
rant like Beck Bey. 

"But I never dreamed, Bitti, of a day when a British governor of 
Jerusalem would greet me with Hebrew words on his lips !** 

The Ben Yehudas had another serendipity at the frontier. A trim, 
stalwart young man came rushing up to them. No one recognized 
him at first 

"I m Ehud, Father! Don t say you ve forgotten me!" 

They had not forgotten him, but it had been years since they had 
seen him. He had gone to Germany to study agriculture when he 
was fifteen. Now he was a man, having passed his twenty-first birth- 



On the train to Jerusalem he explained all that had happened to 
him. As a Turkish subject he had been liable to conscription. Not 
wanting to serve with the Turks, he had joined the German army 
with a request that he be sent to the Middle East. 

Once he had been court-martialed as a suspected spy, but Am 
bassador Morgenthau had intervened to save him. Then he had es 
caped and gone over to the British. He had fought at Damascus. 
Finally, back in Jerusalem, he had heard his family was on the way 
home and had come to meet them. 

It was Passover when the Ben Yehudas returned to their own 
soil after so long an exile. Eliezer sat in the railroad coach, staring 
out the window at "his " land. It seemed enough for him that he 
finally was back home. When they reached the Golden City he 
seemed happy at the sights, the sounds, the smells which had been so 
familiar. Only one thing bothered him. Why had no one come to 
meet them? Why, in the streets, when he greeted people he had 
known for years, did they act so queerly? 

When they reached Abyssinian Street they found their home oc 
cupied by strangers. Ben Yehuda s library was intact because the 
door had been double-locked on his study. But there was little else 
of their own left in the house. Even Hemda s books were gone. 

Moshe Nissim, the secretary, explained that he had had to sell 
some items of furniture to pay for food for his family. He would now 
try to buy them back. Other things had been stolen. He had done 
the best he could. 

Ben Avi s house had fared better. His wife s family had watched 
over it. So Eliezer, Hemda, their three daughters, and their youngest 
son tried to "make house" in the one spare room at Ben Avi s. Then 
they attempted to learn why they had been received in such chill 
silence. The answer was not one that brought joy to any of them. 

Jerusalem was almost unanimous in considering that Ben Yehuda 
had "run away." During the yeai^s that those who remained behind 
had suffered, they had often talked with anger about how all the Ben 
Yehudas except Ehud had escaped the deprivations and horrors of 
war. Why had the Ben Yehudas, who talked so much of sacrifice, 
not stayed to suffer, and to die, if necessary? Why, if they wanted to 
go into exile, had they not gone, as so many others had, to soirie mis- 


Tongue of the Prophets 

erable town in Anatolia? Real welcomes were arranged for those 
who returned from such exiles ! But not for the Ben Yehudas, who 
had been safe, comfortable, warm, and well fed in America ! 

Hemda said they should explain about the "mission" ; they should 
tell of what had been accomplished. 

But Eliezer shook his head. His critics were right. He had run 
away. It would have been better if he had stayed. He understood 
how they felt. In time they might forget. Meanwhile there was work 
to be done. 


Hebrew Comes of Age 


Abyssinian Street, It took weeks of searching in Jewish and Arab 
homes to find all the missing pieces of furniture. But finally the Ben 
Yehudas were ready to receive whatever old friends would come, 
and to welcome the "new rulers" in as much style as they were able. 

Slowly, gradually, those who had been angered by the flight of the 
family put in an appearance. The antagonisms melted like the snow 
in mountain passes in the spring; almost imperceptibly, but inevita 

There were burning questions to be discussed. Ben Yehuda, to 
whom they always looked for opinions and advice, before long was 
taking as great a part as ever in the political, scholastic, and social 
life of the community. 

If they reprimanded him for having gone away, he accepted their 
remarks in silence. But if they came with criticism of the new regime, 
he lashed back at them. The British must be given a chance. They 
must not be judged hastily. Their coming had been awaited for so 
long a time; now they must be treated as liberators, not as masters 
to be hated and fought. Gradually the Ben Yehuda home became a 
cultural and intellectual center again. Frenchmen, Englishmen, 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Italians, and Russians came. Army officers, diplomats, members of 
visiting political missions. Hadassah doctors and nurses, Jewish lead 
ers from America, scholars from all over the world. 

Ben Yehuda found little time to work on the dictionary. For this 
Hemda often took him to task. He would reply: 

"You are right, Bitti, but I have worked diligently for nearly forty 
years. In this hour when we prepare for our final triumph, let me 
take part in life for a little while. Then I shall go back to my papers 
and my books. * 

The daughters had no regrets about having returned. There were 
parties, dances, receptions, lectures; good company; plenty of hand 
some young men. 

The family occasionally traveled to the settlements and to Tel 
Aviv, which had grown from a waste to a thriving little metropolis 
of thirteen thousand inhabitants and was already being called the 
"Miracle City of the Middle East" by people who had no idea that 
in another quarter of a century it would be housing nearly a quarter 
of a million people. 

Everywhere the Ben Yehudas found a new spirit of liberty and 
freedom. The country was blossoming. Its gates were open. Multi 
tudes were streaming in. Jews were buying great areas of land from 
the Arabs. Agricultural settlements were sprouting like grass after a 
summer rain. Commerce, building, education were all advancing 
with giant steps. A real Hebrew literature began to develop. There 
was a Hebrew theater now. Singers were giving concerts of Hebrew 
songs. There was even an opera in Hebrew. Many of the immigrants 
were accepting Palestinian citizenship. They were dropping names 
acquired in the Diaspora and taking Hebrew names. 

These developments brought joy to Ben Yehuda, but he was dis 
turbed because the house on Abyssinian Street was no longer what 
he had called a "Hebrew home. * Foreigners who came did not speak 
his language. Even men of the Jewish Legion and Hadassah doctors 
and nurses spoke English or French. 

Hemda pointed out that it was impossible now to enforce the old 
rule that no one should cross the threshold unless he spoke Hebrew. 

"Then they must learn Hebrew !" 

"Give them time, Eliezer !" 


Hebrew Comes of Age 

Thertf were two questions which burned in Ben Yehuda s mind. 
Although France and Italy had indicated their approval of the Bal- 
f our Declaration, the Allies had taken no formal action on what was 
to be done with Palestine. But now a peace conference was to be 
held at San Remo, Italy, at which the other great powers would de 
cide whether to give Great Britain a mandate over the Holy Land. 
It would be at San Remo, Ben Yehuda felt, that Israel would be 
given the chance to live and develop, or would be given a death sen 

The other question was who would be the first British High Com 
missioner of Palestine? This, Ben Yehuda felt, would also decide 
much about the future. Would the man be at all sympathetic toward 
the Jews? Would he be a disinterested military man, or a career 
diplomat interested only in holding his job? 

As the time for the San Remo conference of the Allies approached, 
Ben Yehuda went for days without food, nights without sleep. He 
wandered from room to room of the house on Abyssinian Street; 
from terrace to balcony to garden and back. 

"What will they do at San Remo?" 

He kept asking the question as if San Remo would decide how 
many hours or days he personally had yet to live. 

Hemda, with all her love and respect for him, was now worried. 
Here was a new and different Ben Yehuda whom she had difficulty 

"This is not the excitement of a normal, healthy man," she once 
said to Ben Avi. "He is becoming extremely eccentric. Why is he so 

Ben Avi promised to keep watch over his father and try to calm 

"There can be only one answer at San Remo, Father* Why do 
you fret? It is to the interests of all nations to agree about the man 
date and a Jewish homeland, for in this manner they will solve once 
and for all what they like to call the Jewish problem. 3> 

Ben Avi was the only one who could influence bis father, but as 
soon as Ben Avi left the house Eliezer would start pacing again, 
sometimes getting excited and saying: 


Tongue of the Prophets 

"What if they give us a negative answer at San Remo?" * 

Then one morning Ben Avi came into his study. 

"I have news from San Remo, Father! Fifty-two nations have 
just given their consent to our national home. Now will you stop 

"Are you sure?" 

The father was on his feet, clutching his son by each of his shoul 

"Who told you? Is it official? Was it unanimous?" 

Ben Avi smiled and reassured his father. It was official. It had 
been unanimous. Israel had won her charter of freedom. 

"And now/ he added, "let s you and I have a glass of Jewish 
wine and drink a toast to our Israel!" 

But the father was not listening any more. 

He rushed from the house, not even stopping for a hat. 

There was no telephone, so he must spread the news by word of 

He went wildly from street to street, acting like the frantic fanatic 
his own wife had decided he had become. 

Ben Avi tried to follow him, worried that he might have a heart 

Up one street, down the next. Rushing. Always rushing, although 
he was a man old beyond his sixty-two years. 

Jerusalem must hear the news, so Jerusalem could rejoice with 

He passed a schoolhouse. The children were streaming out from 
their classes. He gathered them around him. 

"Go home! Quickly go home! Tell your parents! Tell them Israel 
lives! They signed!" 

He rushed through the section of small shops. He stopped women 
on their way to market, whether they were British wives, tourists 
wives, or whoever they were. Waving his arms to command their 
attention, he gave them the news, which few understood because his 
words were in Hebrew. 

"They signed ! Israel lives I" 

He was out of breath and trembling, but he kept shouting like a 
devil possessed. 


Hebrew Comes of Age 

He met two Dominican priests who were old friends. Without any 
greeting of recognition he screamed at them: 

"Did you hear? They signed !" 

One of the priests tried to calm him. 

"Ben Yehuda, my friend, what is this you are saying. Who signed 
what, and where?" 

"San Remo ! San Remo ! They signed at San Remo ! Can t you 
hear me?" 

The priest smiled tolerantly. 

"It is good that you won. We hope now that you will treat us 
better than we have treated you all these centuries." 

Ben Yehuda blinked and for a moment seemed to come to his 

"Yes. You may be sure of that. There will be one law. One justice 
for us and for the stranger in our midst. We shall watch over your 
holy places as if they were our own." 

He was still almost running when he reached his own home. Ben 
Avi was close behind him. 

Hemda and the son put him on a couch. Each held one of hps 
hands. They talked softly to him and begged him to lie still. 

When he spoke again it was almost in a mumble. 

"I cannot understand my own people." 

They suggested he have a drink of water. 

"Why am I the only one who is excited? Why is no one else en 

He looked wildly into the two faces that bent over him. 

"Have Jews lost all their political sense? Does no one else com 
prehend the importance?" 

Hemda tried to stroke his forehead. 

"Do they not know that Israel has come from the dead and now 
lives again?" 

When the answer to the second question came, Ben Yehuda be 
came literally hysterical with excitement. Hemda was concerned 
about his condition and tried to keep him calm. He pushed her aside. 

"Do you hear, Hemda? They have appointed a Jew ! Sir Herbert 
Samuel, a Jew ! His Hebrew name is the same as mine, Eliezer. He 


Tongue of the Prophets 

will become the modern King of Israel. He is a Jew, Hemda ! For 
the first time in two thousand years a Jew will rule over Israel !" 

"Yes, Eliezer," his wife said, worrying that the excitement would 
bring on one of his disastrous coughing spells. "I remember him. It 
was just twenty-two years ago that we met him at his aunt s house in 
London and he asked you " 

"Hemda! Do you suppose this man is is that little boy?" 

"Yes, Eliezer, that little boy. I hope he remembers some of the 
things you told him then about our country." 

On the first Sabbath after his arrival Sir Herbert Samuel went to 
a synagogue in the Old City and demonstrated that he had retained 
the faith of his forefathers. Eliezer Ben Yehuda, against whom the 
religious authorities had once declared a religious ban, went also that 
day to the synagogue. 

When he returned home he was in a quiet mood, and his voice 
was soft again as he said to his wife: 

"Our friend the High Commissioner read from the Torah, Bitti. 
He read those lines from Isaiah, e Comfort ye, comfort ye, my peo 
ple! As he read them I could not control myself. I cried, Bitti, and 
I guess people saw me. I am sure they wondered why I was there." 

After a pause he added: 

"For nearly forty years I have been working to separate religion 
and the state, haven t I? I did it because I wanted Israel to be able 
to develop freely; so that those who are Orthodox and those who are 
freethinkers could join in the resurrection of Israel. Only in that way 
could our new state ever be strong. 

"I suppose some people will think that now I am a traitor to my 
own ideas. They are always accusing me of that ! I still believe we 
must keep our religion and our state apart, but, Bitti, it is so good a 
thing to see a British high commissioner standing in the synagogue 
reading from the Torah." 

What happened next marked the real culmination of Ben Yehu 
da s lifework. High Commissioner Samuel announced that hence 
forth there would be three official languages: English, Arabic, and 

There had been many other hard-laboring Zionists, although Ben 
Yehuda had exceeded most at them in the number of years he had 


Hebrew Comes of Age 

devoted to propagandizing for a return to the Holy Land and in the 
number of words he had written about it. 

There had been other Hebrew lexicographers, too, although none 
had ever even contemplated as monumental an undertaking as Ben 
Yehuda s multilingual, multivolumed dictionary. 

There had been others who, after his death, would try to rob him 
of credit by saying, "I did it too !" 

But there had been no one, anywhere, who had worked so hard 
for so long to make Hebrew an accepted language in the streets of 
Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, and the settlements. 

The proclamation of the mandatory power was like the final 
whistle of the referee. The game was over. The fight had been won. 

One day the High Commissioner s wife, during a conversation 
with Mrs. Ben Yehuda about languages, said with a laugh: 

"I shall stick to English. After all, the best is good enough for 

But less than a year later Lady Beatrice was speaking Hebrew. 
At Ben Yehuda s request her husband also took lessons. Their chil 
dren, however, learned the language better than either of them. 

After that, in the great stone palace which the Germans had 
named after their Empress, Augusta Victoria, and which the British 
had taken over as their Government House, Hebrew was heard at 
every state reception. 

Teachers of Hebrew suddenly found themselves in great demand. 
American Jews, British Jews, even people who were not Jews at all, 
wanted to learn Hebrew, This sudden interest on the part of out 
siders sent Ben Yehuda back to his study to look for new words. 

"How do you say medicine dropper in Hebrew?" a doctor would 

"What is the word for a policeman s club ?" 

"The post office, Eliezer, has sent a man to ask if you have a word 
for . . ." 

Many a night Ben Yehuda went without sleep, trying to satisfy 
these demands. He had grown old beyond his years and he was very 
tired and not in good health, but these were requests he could not 

The battle was over. But there was no rest for the winner. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

If Eliezer Ben Yehuda had been younger, healthier, and not so 
tired, he might not have worried so much, in the early days of the 
British mandate, over all the "grousing," as Englishmen called it, 
that he began to hear. Having been the father of eleven children, he 
should have known about "growing pains." 

The complainants came to him, knowing he was a champion of 
this new regime. Some even acted as if he personally were responsi 
ble for the evils to which they objected. 

Vladimir Jabotinsky, nicknamed Hazeev (The Wolf), was one 
of the most vocal. He was the idol of the Jewish youth of Russia and 
Palestine alike; almost a legendary figure. During the war he had 
organized a Jewish military unit which fought at Gallipoli. Then he 
went to London and argued for the inclusion of all- Jewish units in 
the British army. Three battalions were formed, and the Jabotinsky 
idea spread to the United States, where nearly three thousand Amer 
ican Jews joined the Jewish Legion. 

An entire battalion was recruited in Palestine and rendered effi 
cient service in the drive which resulted in the collapse of the Turk 
ish army in the Holy Land. 

At the close of the war Jabotinsky wanted the Jewish Legion kept 
intact to help preserve order in Palestine, but the British insisted on 

In 1919-20 he found evidence that pogroms were being prepared 
in Palestine with what he called the "connivance" of the British, so 
he organized an underground Jewish defense force, the forerunner of 
Haganah, in which many former members of the Jewish Legion 
were enrolled. 

Jabotinsky would come to Ben Yehuda complaining about the 
British attitude and insisting that the Jews of Palestine must prepare 
to fight for what they wanted with bullets and bombs. 

Ben Yehuda would answer: 

"The srength of the spirit is greater!" 

This annoyed not only Jabotinsky but Ben Avi as well. 

"When you were a young man," the son would say, "you were 
a rebel. You fought back, overthrowing all tradition. Now we are 
young. We wish to take strong measures. We are entitled to do so 
without interference from you and your generation!" 


Hebrew Comes of Age 

The father replied that concessions and -sacrifices must now be 
made by the Jews or they would lose everything they had won. 

But this was no answer to youth, and Ben Yehuda knew it and 
often gave evidence of doubting the soundness of his own advice. 

Jabotinsky and his followers were not the only ones who had com 
plaints. Others came to denounce the British for slighting the Jews 
when government jobs were given out. 

Still others thought that life in Palestine had been better for the 
Jews under the Turks. You had to pay baksheesh, but it was possible 
to "buy" privileges. Now, they said, there were no privileges for 

Hardly a day passed but that someone came with fresh criticism 
of the High Commissioner. Why was he, a Jew, so unsympathetic? 
Why did he do this? Why did he act in that manner? 

Ben Yehuda admitted that perhaps the High Commissioner had 
made errors. Often he conceded that Sir Herbert might not be a 
perfect administrator. But, he would argue, a precedent had been 
established. Other high commissioners would come who might also 
be Jews if Herbert Samuel made a success of his job. 

In these days there were the first rumblings of trouble between 
Jews and Arabs. Ben Yehuda pleaded for conciliation. He was a 
great friend of the Arabs. Through his philological work he felt 
more alcm to these oppressed, Semitic people than most Jews. 
He had studied their language and knew the contributions which 
Hebrew had made to Arabic, and Arabic to Hebrew. He called 
the Arabs "our brothers." For years he had been expressing to them 
his belief that the day would come when both Arabs and Jews 
would be able to breathe the air of freedom in Palestine. 

On their side, the Arabs respected Ben Yehuda as a scholar and 
learned man. Most of them were happy over his revival of Hebrew. 
They liked to hear the language spoken in the streets, regarding it 
as a "sister tongue," much more akin to their own than Yiddish, 
Ladino, or the talk of Europe. 

In these days Ben Yehuda finally found personal peace. 

He resigned from most of the committees he was on, except the 


Tongue of the Prophets 

language board, the Pro- Jerusalem Society, and several archaeo 
logical organizations. 

He locked himself in his study and spent his time working on the 
dictionary and the manuscript for the Hebrew classics. Occasion 
ally he wrote an editorial for his son s newspaper, which now, in the 
date line, gave the year in two ways: so many years after the de 
struction of the Temple, and so many years after the issuance of the 
Balfour Declaration. 

In these days when Hemda and Eliezer were alone they would 
make plans for the home to be built with the check presented to 
them in New York. 

When Eliezer could be persuaded to take time off from his writ 
ing they would go into the outskirts of the city looking for a suitable 
site. An architect drew plans for the house. It would include a real 
workroom which a writer like Ben Yehuda needed and which he had 
never had. 

The prayer shawl which Ben Yehuda had worn in his early days 
in Jerusalem, when he was trying to win the support of the Orthodox 
group, he now wore for no other reason than that he wished to. 

His new attitude toward his old religion perplexed many people. 
There were some who thought it was a pose, a new trick. There 
were some who questioned his sincerity. 

But one of Ben Yehuda s friends one day silenced a particularly 
vocal doubter by saying: 

"I was in the Hurva Synagogue the day the end of the Third 
Exile was officially pronounced. Ben Yehuda was also there. I was 
near enough to him so I could see the tears streaming down his 
face. I saw the look in his eyes. 

"I knew then what I had always suspected. Down underneath it 
all Ben Yehuda has a deeply religious soul. He has fought supersti 
tion and bigotry and fanaticism, but that does not mean he is not a 
good and a humble man." 

In these last days of his life Eliezer Ben Yehuda began to experi 
ence an inner serenity which all those about him observed. 


Friend vs. Friend 


ery" prose, but when the Arab disorders of 1920-21 broke out he 
compared the thunder of that disastrous series of events to "the noise 
of God breaking stone walls." 

Jews were dying. Arabs were killing and being killed. The soldiers 
of the British High Commissioner, who was a Jew, were firing on 
Palestinians, who were Jews. Blood was staining the soil of the newly 
established Jewish homeland, as had happened so often before. 
Blood was staining the record too. This had not been in the pro 
gram. This had not been contemplated in the Balfour Declaration, 
nor at San Remo either. 

Great Britain was being denounced from all sides. 

Eliezer Ben Yehuda left the retirement of his study. He who had 
so stoutly defended the British and had preached the gospel of 
friendly co-operation with the Arabs must take a position. Whose 
side was he on now? 

At first he defended the British High Commissioner, laying the 
blame at the door of Sir Ronald Storrs for not having nipped the 
trouble before it blossomed into a general disturbance. He also 
blamed anti-Semitic underlings of the High Commissioner. 


Tongue of the Prophets 

Yet he sympathized with many of the arguments presented to him 
one evening by Vladimir (The Wolf) Jabotinsky. 

"War is war, Ben Yehuda !" Jabotinsky said. "We must not shrink 
from fighting for what we believe. In the end, if we have the courage 
of our convictions, we shall come out victorious." 

A short time after this conversation Jabotinsky and nineteen of 
his young followers were arrested by the British on a charge of stor 
ing up a secret supply of arms. 

From his prison cell Jabotinsky demanded that the British give 
him a death sentence, 

"Then perhaps my own people will see and understand the kind 
of a war we must fight against these people." 

Instead the British shaved his head, put him in the garb of a com 
mon convict, and sentenced him to fifteen years at hard labor. 

This infuriated the Jews of Palestine. Ben Yehuda, sharing their 
feelings, started for Acre to visit his imprisoned friend, but before he 
got there Jabotinsky was shipped off to Egypt "for safekeeping." 

This was going too far ! A clamor rose from the Jews which ech 
oed in Whitehall and Downing Street. 

Ben Yehuda sent his wife to see Mrs. Jabotinsky with a suggestion 
that the two of them go to England and "turn London upside down" 
to force the British government at least to return Jabotinsky to Pal 

While Hemda was in conference with Mrs. Jabotinsky, London 
cabled Jerusalem, and Jabotinsky was returned to the prison at Acre. 

Overnight he became a national hero. Jews by the hundreds 
streamed to Acre to see him. They sent him flowers, candy, food, 
bodks, cigarettes. Thousands of copies of his photograph were made. 
Many women began carrying his picture in their bosoms, dose to 
their hearts. The rifle, helmet, revolver, and belt of the imprisoned 
man were declared "holy" items. 

Now Jabotinsky issued an announcement that he was going on a 
hunger strike until the British released him. 

Ben Yehuda sent him a message asking Hm to reconsider, because 
most of the Jews of Palestine would insist on going without food as 
teng as he did, and there would be serious consequences. 

Jabotinsky took Ben Yehuda s advice, but he sent word to his 


Friend vs. Friend 

underground army to prepare an attack on Acre and liberate him by 
force of arms. 

The message came one evening while his lieutenants were having 
dinner at the Ben Yehuda home. When their host saw their agitation 
he insisted they show him the message. After he read it he pleaded 
with them to think long before carrying out the order, because the 
attempt would undoubtedly cost the lives of all the young Jews in 

Late that night some of them returned to the Ben Yehuda home, 
saying they had decided to take his advice. 

A few weeks later Jabotinsky was released by the British. 

Then the British High Commissioner made a move for which Ben 
Yehuda never forgave him. He ordered a halt to all immigration 
into Palestine. Ben Yehuda made a personal protest, but it did no 

Regardless of the High Commissioner s order, Ben Yehuda felt it 
was important to bring in as many Jewish immigrants as possible, 
even though it had to be done illegally. On this subject he and his 
old friend Dr. Nordau at last saw eye to eye. Dr. Nordau was beg 
ging the Zionist Congress to bring in six hundred thousand Jews 
from Poland, the Ukraine, and Rumania. Had the French doctor s 
arguments prevailed, hundreds of thousands of Jews who were later 
put to death might have lived. 

The trouble was that funds were lacking. Thousands of Jews were 
eager to come, but there was no money for transportation. So Ben 
Yehuda made a sensational proposal. The Jews were spending 
slightly more than one million dollars a year on their Palestinian 
schools. If they were closed for just a few months, the money saved 
could be used to bring in great numbers of new settlers. 

The thunder of the denunciations which greeted this proposal 
could be heard from Dan to Beersheba. 

"He is a traitor to education, to his own language, to everything 
he ever preached !" 

"Now he wants us to sacrifice our children!" 

What hurt Ben Yehuda the most was that his bitterest enemies 
in this new feud were the Hebrew teachers, many of whom had been 
his early protgs. They turned the other way when they saw him 


Tongue of the Prophets 

approaching on the street. They declared their own ban against 
him. There were v no black candles this time. No blowing of the 
shof ar. But it was a ban just the same, as emotionally imposed as the 
herem which the religious fanatics had declared against him so many 
years ago. 

Brokenhearted, Ben Yehuda retired to his study. If his old friends 
wished to cross him off their lists again, if people chose to pass the 
Ben Yehuda house looking the other way, at least the dictionary 
would benefit. 

"Bitti, the skeleton for the rest of the volumes of the dictionary is 
finally completed. And tav [the last letter of the alphabet] is even 
richer, I believe, than aleph [the first]." 

About this time at Talpioth (Pretty Hillsite), on the road from 
Jerusalem to Bethlehem, the entire Ben Yehuda family assembled 
one day for the laying of the cornerstone of the new home. Eleizer 
was the one who picked the name for it, Matan Am, meaning, quite 
appropriately, "Gift of the People." 

No one else may have noticed it, but Hemda read into the expres 
sion on her husband s face that day his own realization that others 
might live to make use of this symbol of America s feelings toward 
him but that he would never enjoy it himself. 

He was only sixty-four years old, but he had been living all his 
adult life on what a doctor once called "borrowed time." 


Only Ten Lines 


of the Zionists, who would become the first President of the state of 
Israel, was as controversial a figure in these days as Ben Yehuda. 

Weizmann was only twenty-two years old when Herzl wrote The 
Jewish State, and he had been won to Zionism by the book, becom 
ing one of the most ardent disciples of "the father of modern Zion 
ism." For a quarter of a century he had played a large part in Zionist 
activities, but twice he had broken with the leadership. During the 
Uganda controversy he had opposed the Herzl-Ben Yehuda position, 
siding with the Russian bloc. More recently he and Justice Brandeis 
had had a "war of principle." 

But now he was the "strong man" of the Zionists, and there were 
many Jews who tried to heap on him all the blame for all the trou 
bles which were besetting Palestine. 

The British High Commissioner, although a Jew himself, was 
pro-Arab in his actions, they argued, and in every compromise he 
made the Jews suffer. Chaim Weizmann, they insisted, must do 
something about this. 

Then Weizmann came to Jerusalem, He had a personality before 


Tongue of the Prophets 

which opposition melted. He was of good appearance, tall, slim, with 
a winning smile. 

Ben Yehuda was eager to talk to him about "grand strategy" and 
find out what the aim of British diplomacy here was. What about 
illegal immigration? Did Britain, as some people whispered, really 
want Arabs and Jews to keep at each other s throats? 

Ben Avi gave a dinner party for Weizmann. Eliezer put on his 
evening clothes hours before it was time to go to his son s home. He 
paced his study, thinking over questions he wanted to ask. 

Weizmann greeted them all warmly. He was placed between 
Eliezer and Hemda, who was nervous because of the disturbed state 
her husband was in. 

After dinner, in tie oriental drawing room, Weizmann and Ben 
Yehuda went into a corner by themselves. No one disturbed them. 
Each spoke with intensity and animation. 

"And what did he say?" Hemda asked her husband as soon as 
they were alone in their own home. 

"He said that England, in his opinion, will fulfill all her obliga 
tions. Yet he feels that England has some just complaints. In London 
they are furious over the way the Jews in Palestine are behaving, 
and they blame Weizmann for not exerting a stronger leadership 
over his people. But England, he said, is in no position to renege on 
her declaration. 9 

"What else, Eliezer?" 

"He says that he is disappointed that more Jews do not seem to 
want to leave the Gduth [lands of their exile] and return to their 
own native soil. That gets back to the disturbances again. They hear 
about them abroad and are afraid to come here. They say that con 
ditions in the ghettos are bad, but there are no Arabs or British sol- 
idiers shooting at them.** 

"Was that all, Eliezer?" 

"Oh yes, he did say he has a firm faith that if we can weather 
these storms the day will come when we shall have a real Jewish 

Ben Yehuda stopped, as if this were the end, but Hemda could 
tell there had been something else; something that was bothering 
him. Finally she pried it from him. 


Only Ten Lines 

At the end of the conversation Weizmann had said: 

"What we need, Ben Yehuda, is a strong, vigorous appeal to our 
own people. And you are the one to write it. We have never forgot 
ten your first and second appeals, written so many years ago. Now 
you must write a third. 

"Write it with all your warmth and with all the magic of your 
pen. The situation is serious, but your words will enter the minds 
and hearts of our people and stir them to a realization of the crisis 
of the hour." 

Ben Yehuda had tried to beg off. He had answered that no one 
could write anything more effective than the Balfour Declaration. 
That had been the "third appeal." If that did not impress Jews, 
nothing would. 

When Weizmann still insisted, Ben Yehuda had finally stood up 
at attention, like a soldier, and had said: 

"You are the leader* Your wish is a command. I shall write it for 

That was the reason Eliezer Ben Yehuda did not go to bed that 
night. Still in his evening clothes, he went to his study, took up his 
pen, and with trembling fingers began to make marks on a piece of 

Hemda sat outside the study until 2 A.M. waiting for him. Finally 
he put down his pen and came out. 

"Bitti, I do not seem able to do it. I fear I am too tired. Perhaps 
I shall find the right words, the strong expressions;, the inspiration 
tomorrow. Now I think I had better go to bed." 

As she turned out the lights Hemda glanced at the piece of paper** 
There were just five lines on it. 

The next morning, early, when the rest of the family came down 
to breakfast, they found Eliezer standing at his high desk, with the 
pen in one hand and the other hand to his forehead. There were now 
ten lines on the piece of paper. 

He would stand for an hour or two and then sit for a spell. 

In midafternoon Hemda begged him to lie down for a rest. He 

"I must make the words come, Bitti! I promised the leader!" 

That evening, which was the evening of the first day of Hanukkah, 


Tongue of the Prophets 

the eight-day candlelight festival, there was a dinner party at the 
Ben Yehuda home. This was an annual affair. On this day they 
always celebrated the anniversary of Ben Yehuda s release from 

After dinner the others retired to the drawing room on the second 
floor. Ben Yehuda excused himself, saying: 

"I have some work to do in my study." 

At 1 1 P.M. tea was served. Hemda sent one of the girls to the study 
to ask her husband to join them for half an hour. He sent word back 
that he was too busy, so Hemda sent his tea to him. 

At midnight the guests left and Hemda immediately went to the 
study. Eliezer, standing in front of his high desk, apparently did not 
hear her enter. She went over to him, put one arm around his shoul 
der, and said: 

"Give me the pen, Eliezer. You have worked long enough. To 
morrow morning you can continue. You say yourself you do your 
best work in the morning." 

He handed her the pen just as a small boy, caught with some for 
bidden article, relinquishes it, not very willingly. 

All he said was: 

"I am afraid I shall not be able to write the third appeal." 

After she had helped him to bed Hemda went back to the study 
and looked at the piece of paper on the desk. There were still ten 
lines on it. 

About one hour later Eliezer called to his wife. He said he felt 
that something was wrong. It was difficult to breathe. 

Dola, frightened by the tone of her mother s voice when she 
called her and by the expression on her mother s face, slipped a coat 
over her nightdress and with her hair still hanging down her back 
ran the considerable distance to Ben Avi s home. 

Five doctors arrived, one after the other. An oxygen tent was sent 
from the Hadassah Hospital. 

All the children of the family except Ada, who was in Europe, 
and Ehud, who was studying in California, were gathered around 
the bed. 

The doctors shook their heads. 

Hemda bent over and asked Eliezer if he wanted anything. 


Only Ten Lines 

He said "no" with his eyes. 
A moment later she said to him : 
"Do you feel better now, Eliezer?" 

Slowly the answer came, in that warm manner of speaking he had 
when he was not agitated. 
"Yes, Bitti. Better/ 5 
Then he closed his eyes. 
One of the doctors pulled a sheet up over his face. 




that penalty which true greatness is so often required to pay: he had 
to die to be properly acclaimed. 

In life he had been fought, denounced, vilified by Sephardic Jews 
and Ashkenazic Jews, by Zionists and non-Zionists, by haters of 
Hebrew and lovers of Hebrew, the Orthodox and the un-Orthodox, 
Jews in Palestine and Jews out in the Diaspora, 

In death thirty thousand Jews followed his body to the grave. 
School children with black-draped flags. Ultra-religious Jews with 
long side curls and garments reminiscent of the ghettos of Europe. 
Jewish businessmen, very Western-looking, from Td Aviv and 
Haifa. Healthy young pioneers who had been streaming in for two 
days from remote colonies. Jewish soldiers, Jewish scholars, Jewish 
statesmen. There were Christians and Arabs in the procession, and 
British high officials. Dominican monks and Franciscan monks and 
Modem leaders. 

Palestine was ordered to observe three days of national mourning. 

Palestine wept, knowing a man had died who had all the qualifi 
cations of greatness. 



Eliezer Ben Yehuda had never made any "after my death" re 
quests, except that once, perhaps thinking of the time Deborah, his 
wife, died, or of the trouble about burying Deborah, his daughter, 
he had spoken briefly to Hemda about liking the idea of cremation, 

In the early hours of that Sabbath in 1922, after the doctors had 
gone, Hemda remembered the flag the American Jews had given 
her husband, so she got it and put it over the cold body. 

Later that morning she made inquiries about cremation, although 
she knew it would be a serious violation of Orthodox practice. She 
was told the body would have to be shipped to Egypt. There were 
no crematories in Palestine, 

While she was still debating the matter in her own mind, a dele 
gation arrived at the house on Abyssinian Street to say that orders 
had been issued for a national funeral. This settled it. In life Eliezer 
had been hers. In death, she agreed, he belonged to the nation; to 
his people. 

The entire proceedings went according to strict Orthodox prac 
tice. Members of the family were not allowed to follow the cortege. 

There were many other rules which had to be adhered to. But 
Hemda and the rest of the family acquiesced. Eliezer was no longer 

The widow was given one privilege. She could choose the place 
for the grave. 

Hemda knew the exact spot which, as long as cremation was not 
possible, would have pleased her husband. It was on the Mount of 
Olives, where they had so often sat, looking down on the Temple 
area and the Golden Gate. From up there one could see the entire 
panorama of Jerusalem, "his" city. 

The funeral was at high noon. It was conducted with solemn 

They buried Eliezer Ben Yehuda clothed in the prayer shawl 
which of late he had taken to wearing when he went to the syna 
gogue. The Hebrew flag given to him in New York covered the bier. 

Following Orthodox practice, members of the family wore not 
permitted even to see the grave until the seven-day period of mourn 
ing was over, 


Tongue of the Prophets 

On anniversaries of the death the family was joined in visits to 
the Mount of Olives by groups of young students carrying banners, 
who would cluster around the stone marking the spot and sing He 
brew songs to the man who had revived their language. 

As for the dictionary, Hemda and her children devoted their ener 
gies during the next quarter century to organizing committees, rais 
ing funds, and putting out additional volumes. 

The first committee was called the Eliezer Ben Yehuda Memorial 
Trust and was founded under the patronage of High Commissioner 
Herbert Samuel and Dr. Chaim Weizmann. 

Philologists and language scholars in England, Germany, the 
United States, France, and Palestine, among them some of Ben 
Yehuda s Dominican friends, worked with his former secretary, 
Moshe Nissim, to complete the sixth and seventh volumes. 

Later other committees helped put out other volumes. Once Ehud 
spent a year in South Africa, Rhodesia, and the Belgian Congo 
organizing a committee there. 

By 1951 thirteen volumes, averaging six hundred pages each, had 
been put into print, and only two letters of the Hebrew alphabet re 
mained, shin (the equivalent of the "sh" sound in English) and tav, 
the final letter. It was estimated that these two letters would require 
three more volumes, making sixteen in all. 

After the state of Israel came into existence the completion of the 
dictionary became a state project. 

The last word on which Ben Yehuda himself had done any work 
was nefesh (soul). He left, however, most of the material required 
for the eleven posthumous volumes. 

Once, long before the Balfour Declaration was issued, Ben Yehuda 
had said to his wife: 

"Old men talk about what is going to happen after their death. 
Such matters have never interested me. I only pray that I shall live 
long enough to see the rebirth of Israel as a nation and the use of our 
own language on our own soil." 

After his death a British magazine, the Palestine Weekly, said: 

"His was one of the rare cases of a life s dream fulfilled; long be 
fore he died he saw the ideal for which he had lived, labored, and 



suffered transformed into a solid reality, a reality which could not 
be disputed." 

That was not technically true. In 1922 there was no Jewish state. 
Israel still existed only in dreams. The Jews of Palestine would have 
to wait another quarter century to see the flag which had been given 
to Eliezer Ben Yehuda in New York fly over Jerusalem as a symbol 
of the existence of a free and independent Israel. 

But he did live to see the day when a census was taken in Pales 
tine and virtually every Jew in the country put down on his form, 
under "mother tongue/ the word "Hebrew." 

He did live to see the language which he had had such a major 
part in reviving being used in all the schools without further debate. 
It was the language of the courts, the theater, of business, society, 
and public affairs, along with Arabic for the Arabs and English for 
officials of the mandatory power. 

When Ben Yehuda started work on his dream Hebrew was only 
a liturgical medium, as dead as ancient Latin. It had not even 
breathed for two thousand years. 

By the time he made his last trip up the Mount of Olives, a new 
and vibrant Hebrew was being spoken by a new and vibrant race of 

During the forty-one years he had struggled to bring this about he 
had often been called a "fanatic." 

After his death a eulogist added one word to that epithet, turning 
it into an epitaph. 

The gate over his grave might well have been inscribed with the 





Aaronsohn, Aaron, 213, 311, 321 

Aaronsohn, Sarah, 213 

Abdul Hamid II, 184, 187, 228, 300, 

Aboujdid, Lea, 299 

Aboujeben, 329 

Allenby, Edmund, 213, 339 

Alliance Isra61ite Universelle, 81, 83, 
239> 293-94 

Alliance schools, 82, 125, 208, 249, 

American School for Oriental Re 
search, 310 

Amiel, Shlomoh, 193 

Arabian Nights, no 

Arabic Academy of Science, 319 

"Army of the Defenders of the Lan 
guage," 92 

Ashkenazim, 80-81, 115 

Athlit, 213, 321 

Avars, L y , 133 

Bacher, WUhelm, 272, 292-93 
Balfour Declaration, 338, 354-55> 3 Sl 


Baruchin, 134 

Beck Bey, 324, 342 

Beck, Hassan, 329 

Behar, Henrietta, 188 

Behar, Nissim, 81-83, no, 122, 125, 
128-29, 145-46, I55> 163, 179; m 
trigue for Hacham Bashi, 131-32; 
arrested, 185; supports B. Y, 186- 
89, 193-97; resigns from Alliance 
school, 206 

Behar, Mrs. Nissim, 128-29, 215 

Belkind, Israel, i34~35> ^ l6 4 

Ben Yehuda Dictionary, 83; need for, 
no, 267; first booklet printed, 207; 
Alliance Isra61ite supports, 239; 
Baron Rothschild contributes to, 
240-41; plans for printing Vol. I, 
277-78; Berlin committee supports, 
293-94, 304; Vol. I published, 303; 
components of, 296-97; Jaffa Jews 
raise funds for, 308; Vol. II pub 
lished, 309-10; Mayor Mosher con 
tributes to, 310-11; Vol. Ill pub 
lished, 312; Vol. IV published, 


318-19; J. Rosenwald contributes 

to, 321; Vol. V published, 322; 

completion of compilation and 

publication, 366 

Ben Yehuda Jubilee Committee, 341 
Bentwich, Herbert, 222, 225, 245 
Bentwich, Mrs. Herbert, 246 
Bentwich, Norman, 245-46, 284, 319 
Berdyczewski, Micah, 204 
Berlin, Dr. Meyer, 308 
Bernhardt, Sarah, 39 
Bethlehem, 214 
Bezalel School of Fine Arts, 302-3, 


Biluyim, 87-89 
Blanc, Louis, 171 
Blau, Lajos, 293 
Blesher, Shalom, 112-13 
Blucker, Rabbi Joseph, 23-25, 76 
Bney Mosheh, 181-82 
Brainin, Reuben, 1 18 
Brandeis, Louis D., 332-34, 338, 359 
Branitzky, 136 

Calmi, Hayim, 104, 109, 163, 179 
Chamberlain, Joseph, 282 
Clemenceau, Georges, 241, 244 
Cohen, Ephrayim, 315-17 
Cre"mieux, Adolphe, 39 

Darazi, 218 

Davidson, Leib Beer, 19, 101-2, 128, 


Dawn, the. See Hashahar 

Deer, the, 103-12, 120-22, 128, 131- 
33, i4i> *55> l6l > l6 9~7o, 171-72, 
178, 184, 193, 197-98, 202-4, 2 7> 
208, 223, 224, 229> 251, 254, 259- 

Dizengoff, Meier, 13^-39 

Dreyfus case, 224 

Druses, 218-19 

Due Querci, 260-64 

Eliezer Ben Yehuda Memorial Trust, 


Elyanof, Eliezer. See Yehuda, Ben 
Elyashar, Rabbi Jacob Saul, 195 
Elyashar family, 132 
Eretz Israel,, 45-46, 227 
Evelina de Rothschild school, 123, 


Fathers of the Hebrew Language, 340 
Federation of American Zionists, 331- 
34, 337. See also Zionist Organiza 
tion of America 

Feinberg, Israel ("Devil Lulu"), 136 
Francis Joseph I, 251 
Frankel, Ludwig, 298, 305 
Friedenwald, Dr. Harry, 333 
Frumkin, Israel Dov, 68, 71-74, 77- 

78, 84, 104 
Frumkin, Mrs. Israel Dov, 72-73 

Galilee, 317 
Gambetta, Lon, 38-39 
Ginsberg, Louis, 340 
Girardin, Emile de, 39 
Glicenstein, Enrico, 302 
Goldziher, Ignaz, 293 
Gordon, Jehuda Leb, 90 
Gottheil, Richard J. H., 310-11 
Grazovski, Judah, 90, 137, 141, 205, 

Gutenberg, Johann, 223 

Haam, Ahad, 181-82, 259-60 
Haas, Jacob de, 333 
Hadassah, 338, 346 
Haganah, 352 
Hagis, 179-80 
Hahabatzeleth, 50, 71 
Haifa, 213-14, 315, 364 
Halabi, Chaim ha, 162 
Halukkah, 120-23, 1841!. 



Hannah, 93-94 

Haor. See Light, the 

Hashahar, 44-45, 59, 86 

Hashkafah. See Review, the 

Hatzebi. See Deer, the 

Hebrew language: dedication of B. Y. 
to revival of, 44-49; introduction 
of new words, 109, 133, 169, 174, 
208-9, 269-72; struggle for adop 
tion by schools, 92, 130-35, 207, 
241, 262, S^-" 18 ; spread of, 346; 
made one of three official lan 
guages, 350. See also Ben Yehuda 

Hebrew-Speaking Group, 181 

Hebroni, Joseph, 302-3 

Hedera, 211, 220, 325 

Heine, Heinrich, 90 

Heirut, 300 

Herzberg, Dr. Wilhelm, in 

Herd, Theodor, 225-26, 260, 281, 
306, 359; and B. Y., 250-58; sup 
ports Uganda Plan, 284-86; dies, 

Herzl, Mme. Theodor, 251 

Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden, 294 

Hirschenson, Rabbi Hayim, 93, 103, 

Hirschenson, Mrs. Hayim, 93 

Histadruth Ivrith, 341 

Homah, Baruch, 179-80 

Hugo, Victor, 39, 133 

Idelovitch, David, 137* J 4 

176-77, 205, 215 
Ish-Kishor, Ephraim, 246 
Ishmael Bey, 227 
Israel, 359 

Jabotinsky, Vladimir, 352-53, 35^-57 
Jabotinsky, Mrs, Vladimir, 356 
Jacob* Hayim, 68 
Jaffa, 90-91, 276, 307-8, 317 


Jemal Pasha, 328 
Jericho, 278-79 

Jerusalem, 69-71, 79-80, 89, 312 
Jewish Coachmen s Association, 68 
Jewish Colonization Association, 231 
Jewish Legion, 338-39, 346, 352 
Jewish National Fund, 324 
Judea, 317 

Kahn, Zadok, 188 
Klausner, Joseph, 204-5 
Kossover, Alter, 186 
Krauss, Samuel, 278, 293 
Krugliakov, 180 
Kruse, Max, 302 
Kukiah brothers, 174 

LaGrange, Father, 192 
Lamel School, 207 
Langenscheidtsche Verlagsbuchhand- 

lung, 293-95, 304, 313 
Lehman, Herbert, 335 
Leven, Narcisse, 239, 241, 293 
Levin, Dr. Shemarya, 308, 333 
Levontin, Z. D., 277-78, 308, 311, 


Levy, Dr. Isaac, 277 
Lewin-Epstein, E., 333 
Liberty. See Heirut 
Lifschitz, Reuben, 302 
Light, the, 107, 298, 300 
Lilien, Efraim, 301, 303 
Lipsky, Louis, 333 
Loeb, Louis, 240 
Lum, Abraham Moses, 74~75 

Malkah, Sheynah, 93-94 

Marmorek, Dr. Alexander, 226 

Mate, Israel, 341 

Mebasseret Zion, 78 

Meir, Rabbi Jacob, 131-32. 259-62 

Metulla, 217-21 

Meyouhas, Joseph, 276 


Mikveh Israel, 39, 68, 95, 253 
Montefiore Memorial Foundation, 84 
Morgenthau, Henry, 318, 335, 343 
Moser, Jacob, 310, 312 
Moser, Mrs. Jacob, 310-11 

Nathan, Dr. Paul, 293, 309, 317-18 

Nazareth, 214, 314 

Nes Ziona, 135 

Netter, Dr. Charles, 39, 68, 95 

Neue Freie Presse, 225 

Nissim, Moshe, 326, 328, 343, 366 

Nordau, Dr. Max, 226, 229, 249, 299, 
357; and B. Y. 237-40, 242, 258, 
262-63; supports Uganda Plan, 
280, 284-86 

Nordau, Mrs. Max, 238-39 

Nordau, Maxa, 238 

Order of Ancient Maccabaeans, 222 
Orenoc, S.S., 233 

Palestine: development of agricul 
ture, 90, 136-37, 346; first indus 
tries, 138-40; Jewish population of, 
181, 346 

Palestine Office, 308 

Palestine Weekly, 366 

Perlman, Eliezer. See Yehuda, Ben 

Perlman, Esther, 16 

Perlman, Feygeh Wolf son, 15-21, 
101-2, 125-28, 157, 160-61, 195 

Perlman, Hayim Maeer. See Seydel, 

Perlman, Leib, 100-1 

Perlman, Reb Leib, 14-16, 19-21 

Perlman, Shalom David, 16, 19 

Petach Tikvah, 95, 211, 220, 276, 325 

Phillipson, Martin, 293, 304 

Pines, Jehiel Michael, 83-84, no, 
114, 120, 131, 164, 181-82, 188, 

Pines, Mrs. Jehiel Michael, 93 
Pool, Dr. David de Sola, 103 
Pool, Mrs. David de Sola, 103 
Pro-Jerusalem Society, 354 

Rehovoth, 135 

Review, the, 259-60, 260-61, 282, 287 

Rishon Le Zion, 96-98, 167-70, 208, 
210, 276-77 

Rosenwald, Julius, 321, 330, 335, 340 

Rosh Pinah, 215-16, 220 

Rothschild, Baron Edmond James de, 
46, 122, 132, 134, 169, 175-77, 187- 
88, 212; establishes industries in 
Palestine, 138-41; subsidy to B. Y., 
178, 239, 319; wins acquittal for 
B. Y., 194-97; secures concessions 
for Jews, 201-2; opposes Zionism, 
215-16, 241, 245; dictionary dedi 
cated to, 303 

Rothschild, Lord Lionel, 246 

Ruppin, Dr. Arthur, 308 

Safran, Dr. Alexander, 13 
Samuel, Lady Beatrice, 351 
Samuel, Sir Herbert, 246, 349-51, 

353, 355, 357, 359, 3^6 
Samuel, Mrs. Herbert, 246 
San Remo conference, 347-48, 355 
Schatz, Boris, 301 
Schechter, Solomon, 200 
Schiff, Jacob, 335 
Sephardim, 80-8 1, 115 
Seydel, Hayim Maeer. See Seydel, 


Seydel, Jacob, 18-20, 330-31 
Shertok, Jacob, 89, 277 
Simha, 93-94 
Slousch, Nahum, 203-4 
Smolenskin, Peretz Ben Moshe, 54- 


Society for the Support of Farmers 
and Artisans, 131 



Storrs, Sir Ronald, 342, 355 
Straus, Oscar, 254-55 

Talpioth, 358 

Tel Aviv, 306, 326, 329, 346, 364 

Tennessee, U.S.S., 328 

Thesaurus Totius Hebraitatis. See 
Ben Yehuda Dictionary 

Tschlenow, Jehiel, 118 

Tshashnikov, 38-51, 60-73, 77> IJ 9> 
224, 336 

Tshernikowski, Saul, 203-4 

Turkey: restrictions on immigration 
of Jews, 125-26, 130, 228-29; ban 
on publication of foreign literature, 
133; censorship, 184; revolt of 
Young Turks, 300; relaxation of 
restrictions on Jews, 306, 314 

Uganda Plan, 282-86 
Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, 13 
Ussishkin, Menahem Ben Mosche, 
1 1 8, 284-87, 288, 342 

Vaad Halashon, 275-76, 354 

Warburg, Felix, 335 

Warburg, Otto, 281, 293, 300, 34-5> 


Weizmann, Chaim, 359-61, 366 
Wertheim, Jacob, 335, 339 
Wertheim, Mrs. Jacob, 339 
Wertheim, Maurice, 325, 334-35 
Wilhelm II, 252-53, 316 
Wise, Dr. Stephen S., 333 
Wittinsky, David, 34~35> 3 8 > 77 
Wittmann, Mrs. Dola Ben Yehuda, 

lo-n, 13, 263, 305, 327, 331, 362 
Wittmann, Mrs. Max. See Wittmann, 

Mrs. Dola Ben Yehuda 
WolfFsohn, David, 299-300 
Wolfson, David, 20, 22, 25-27, 300 

World Zionist Organization, 226-29, 
242, 294, 299, 319. See also Zion 
ism; Zionist Congress 

Yahuda, Dr. Abraham Shalom, 83, 
304, 320 

Yavetz, 179 

Yehuda, Ada, 256, 263, 305, 327, 362 

Yehuda, Attarah, 124, 128 

Yehuda, Avi Hayil, 110-12, 124, 128 

Yehuda, Ben: autobiography of, n; 
described, 69, 304; born Eliezer 
Perlman, 16-17; childhood, 18-20; 
celebrates Ear Mitzvah, 22; attends 
Yeshiva in Polotzk, 22-25; leaves 
school, 25; to Glubokiah, 27-28; 
lives with Yonas family, 28-33; 
attends Gymnasium at Diinaburg, 
31, 34-36; dedicates life to Zion 
ism, 36; to Paris, 37; develops 
tuberculosis, 39; writes article for 
Hamaggid, 40; takes name of Ben 
Yehuda, 41-43; "A Worthy Ques 
tion," 44-46; to Algiers for health, 
46; attends Sorbonne, 49; writes 
for Hahabatzeletk, 50; decides to 
go to Palestine, 51-52; meets Deb 
orah in Vienna, 59; to Cairo, 63; 
marries Deborah, 64-65; to Pales 
tine, 66-67; assistant editor of 
Hahabatzeletk, 72; editor of Me- 
basseret Zion, 78; teaches Hebrew, 
82-83; Biluyim arrive, 86ff.; re 
nounces Russian citizenship, 99; 
founds Deer, 103!!.; evicted, 112- 
13; to Moscow, 114-19; to Paris, 
119; dispute over burial of Deb 
orah s body, 127-28; intrigue for 
Hacham Bashi, 131-32; marries 
Hemda, 150-^51; imprisoned, 1850.; 
her em pronounced against, 192; 
trial of, 192-93; released on bail, 
193; herem lifted, 195; acquitted, 
197; campaigns for adoption of 



Hebrew in schools, 207, 212-138:.; 
refuses nomination to executive 
board of World Zionist Organiza 
tion, 227; "Second Appeal," 229; 
to Paris and London, 233-47; meets 
Herzl, 256-58; organizes Vaad 
Halashon, 275-76; nervous break 
down, 280; to Berlin, 280; supports 
Uganda Plan, 282-83; to Berlin, 
304; vacation in Finland, 305; 
"War of Languages," 315-18; to 
Egypt and England, 319-21; to 
U.S., 330; Zionist reception for, 
331-32; attends conference of Fed 
eration of American Zionists, 333- 
34; returns to Jerusalem, 343~44J 
dies, 363; national funeral, 364-65. 
See also Ben Yehuda Dictionary 
Yehuda, Ben Avi, 92, 95-96, 1 14, 124, 
128, 146-47, 154-56, 160-61, 175- 
78, 179-80, 189-90, 195, 233, 253, 
262, 280, 281, 284, 288, 298, 299, 

300, 3<>9> 324> 327, 33> 34 J > 343, 
348, 352, 360 

Yehuda, Ben Zion Ben. See Yehuda, 
Ben Avi 

Yehuda, Deborah Ben, 29-33, 37-41, 
53-54* 6 4~65> 92~93> no-ii, 115- 
16, 123, 124-27, 142, 149 

Yehuda, Deborah II, 183, 222-23, 
233> 252, 263-65 

Yehuda, Dola. See Wittmann, Mrs. 
Dola Ben Yehuda 

Yehuda, Ehud, 209 

Yehuda, Ehud II, 232-33, 263, 287- 
B8, 305, 312, 342-43, 3^2 

Yehuda, Hemda Ben: born Pola 
Yonas, 29-30, 116-17, 135, i42fL; 
changes name to Hemda, 144; mar 
ries B. Y., 150-51; to Jerusalem, 
I56ff.; learns Hebrew, 163-64; 
writes for Deer, 171, 203-5; birth 
of Deborah, 183; edits Deer, 208; 
birth of Ehud, 209; birth of Ehud 


II, 232; in Paris and London, 233- 
52; birth of Ada, 256; secures per 
mit for Review, 259; birth of 
Shlomit, 263; saves dictionary, 
289-90; arranges for publication of 
dictionary in Berlin, 291-94; re 
turns to Jerusalem, 294; to Berlin, 
304; vacation in Finland, 305; 
raises money in Jaffa, 308; to Berlin 
and Switzerland, 309; to Egypt and 
England, 319-21; to U.S., 330-41; 
returns to Jerusalem, 343-44; se 
lects site for grave of B. Y., 365; 
her memoirs and biography of 
B. Y., 10; dies, 13 

Yehuda, Shlomit, 124, 128 

Yehuda, Shlomit II. See Wittmann, 
Mrs. Dola Ben Yehuda 

Yehuda, Yemeemah, 122, 125, 128, 
146, 156, 160-61, 175, 189, 196, 
233, 281, 298, 305 

Yehuda, Zaza, 291, 305, 327 

Yellin, David, 109-10, 186-87, J 93> 
276, 316, 326 

Yellin, Mrs. David, no 

Yonas, David, 305, 309 

Yonas, Deborah. See Yehuda, Deb 
orah Ben 

Yonas, Oniah, 149, 175 

Yonas, Peninnah, 149, 175, 239 

Yonas, Pola. See Yehuda, Hemda 

Yonas, Rivkah, 29, 31-32, 53-55, 8, 
126-28, 142-44, 148, 151 

Yonas, Shlomoh Naftaly Hirtz, 28- 
29, 3i, 53-56, 76, 117, 144, 151, 
J 53~54> i6i 183-84, 188, 210 

ZakM Bey, 314, 324, 328, 330 
Zangwill, Israel, 222-25, 229, 239-40, 

243-45, 284 
Zesarevitz, S.S., 151-52 
Zichron Yaakov, 212-13, 284 
Zion News. See Mebasseret Zion 


Zionism: first appeal of B. Y., 44-46, gress, 225-30, 257; second congress, 

50, 58-59; B. Y. on, 249-50; Baron 245, 250; sixth, 285-86. See also 

Rothschild opposes, 215-16, 241, World Zionist Organization 

245. See also World Zionist Or- Zionist Organization of America, 341. 

ganization; Zionist Congress See also Federation of American 

Zionist Action Committee, 286 Zionists 

Zionist Congress, 315, 357; first con- Zwi, Abraham, 311